"Well, I thought it was cute," states author Dana K. Drenkowski. "Very cute." We are seated at a sun-drenched table at a Marin County coffee shop, where we've parked ourselves this afternoon to discuss The Contender, a brand-new political drama from Dreamworks Pictures.
Drenkowski, a San Francisco lawyer and writer, is referring to the scene in which we, the audience, are first introduced to our heroine, Senator Laine Hansen, played by the great Joan Allen.
"I loved that scene," says my guest. "Here the President of the United States is on the phone, calling her up to offer her the Vice Presidency, and there she is with her pants off."
What makes it even cuter is that when the President calls (he's Jeff Bridges, by the way), Hansen and her husband are happily doing the not-so-nasty right on top of the Senator's desk.
"Of course, we don't know it's her husband at first, do we?" points out J. Michael Reidenbach, Drenkowski's Oakland-based writing-partner and co-author of the duo's own new Washington thriller Legacy & Destiny (Corinthian Books; $24.95). "We kind of think we've caught her in the middle of a scandal."
Indeed. And there's plenty of scandal in The Contender, a sometimes-riveting, sometimes-merely-silly saga of what happens when a woman is chosen to become the Vice President after the former V.P. dies in office.
It is not an easy transition, as her confirmation is challenged by a rabid right-wing Senator (Gary Oldman), an ornery fellow with bad-hair and, even worse, a file full of photos that seem to show a young Ms. Hansen having group sex with a house full of frisky fratboys. This is all decidedly uncute, as is the organized character assassination that seems certain to keep Hansen from becoming the first woman to serve in the White House.
Reidenbach and Drenkowski have also imagined how a woman might make a run for the White House, but in Legacy & Destiny, Governor Elisabeth Armstrong is running for the Presidency itself. That their book, a fast-paced "beach read" that is also crammed with intrigue and scandal, should hit the stands at the same time The Contender lands on movie screens, is a testament to the timeliness of the subject matter.
"It just shows how ready our society is to finally have a woman as our president," says Drenkowski.
"And if Bill Clinton had the guts to ask Ann Richards to be his Vice President instead of Gore," adds Reidenbach, "we'd probably have a female president this January."
But let's get back to that sex-on-the-desk scene.
"In your book you have a seduction scenario between Governor Armstrong and a reporter," I mention. "The Contender showed the Senator being intimate. Why do you think it's necessary to demonstrate that these female candidates are sexual beings?"
"Oh, I don't agree that we were trying to present her as a sexual being," argues Reidenbach. "We were just presenting her as a human being. We were giving people a chance to see her in her private life as well as her public life. Personally, I think the kind of problems a woman presidential candidate will probably encounter won't be related at all to sex."
"Really?" says Drenkowski. "By sex, do you mean her problems won't be related to gender or won't be related to sexual activity."
"Sexual activity," confirms Reidenbach. "I mean, there will be issues where, because of her gender, people won't have confidence in her, and that kind of thing. But her past-and-present sexual activity probably won't even be an issue."
"The whole theme of The Contender is that a woman candidate's sexual activity would be under scrutiny, while a man's sexual history wouldn't," I toss out. "Joan Allen makes a speech, 'You have no right to ask me these questions. And if I had been a man, you wouldn't care about my sexual history.'"
"If there is a double standard," adds Reidenbach, "then it's wrong, and I would hope we could draw lines between what is public and what is private, with either a man or a woman."
Another issue brought up by the movie is the old myth of a woman's raging hormones. In response to one politician's criticism of Hansen's unrepressed sexuality, she retorts, "Believe me, you don't want a woman with her finger on the nuclear button who isn't getting laid." In Legacy & Destiny, there's even a passing joke about the dangers of Presidential PMS.
"It's really an irrelevant issue," insists Drenkowski. "For one thing, most of the women I know aren't getting laid, and they don't seem to be any more or less cranky than anyone else I know. For another thing, most of the women who would be eligible for the presidency will be past the childbearing age. They'll be in their 50s and 60s and menopause will probably have stepped in--so you can't get away with that old raging hormones slur. Indira Gandhi was post-menopausal. Golda Meir was post-menopausal."
Cleopatra was post-meno . . .wait. Forget that.
But hey, Margaret Thatcher was definitely post-menopausal.
"Because I'm a man," adds Reidenbach, "I can't really speak authoritatively to whether it's even a true thesis, that women act differently while experiencing PMS. I deal with women all the time in the workplace, and hey, I can't tell when they're having their period or not. There's no noticeable change in their level of competence.
"I don't even know why this is a subject of discussion," says Drenkowski, "because we already have so many women in key positions around the world. I mean, obviously women can control their emotions and their moods."
Though, you know, really bad PMS might have explained some elements of Thatcherism, which poor old England still hasn't recovered from.
"One of the reasons we'd like to see a woman become president," says Reidenbach, "is so that we can stop talking about this stuff once and for all. Sure, the first woman candidate will run the gauntlet, there will be a lot of insane questions asked, and maybe the sexual issues will be brought up--but the key question will be, 'Is this woman tough enough for the job?' And once a woman convinces the country that she is tough enough, then all the stereotypes will be removed, and we can finally put all that nonsense behind us."
"We'll know for once and for all that a woman," concludes Drenkowski, "can be just as good, or just as bad, a president as any man."
From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.