Breaking Through The Ultimate Glass Ceiling

It won't happen this year. but the next chance at the White House is only four years away, and more women than you might think are already laying the groundwork for their own presidential bids. Bolstered by changing public attitudes, women in politics no longer assume that the Oval Office will always be a male bastion. In 1936, when George Gallup first asked people whether they would "vote for a woman for president if she qualified in every other respect," 65 percent said they would not. Back then, women were only slightly more open to the idea than men. Things are far different today. A recent poll shows that 90 percent of Americans, men included, say they could support a woman for president. The prospect of a woman on the ticket doesn't have the shock value it once did. Women have risen to the top in business, academia, medicine and the law. Why not politics?

Even so, women with their eyes on the White House--or any public office--still face obstacles. Women have an edge in honesty and caring, but on the qualities that matter most, leadership and the ability to be decisive, men still rule in the public's mind. As a result, many women who might have presidential dreams are reluctant to advertise it. The most prominent of all, Hillary Clinton, insists that a Senate seat from New York is her highest political aspiration--for now, anyway. (And she's locked in a tight race even for that.) But to many others--governors, senators, congresswomen, even a retired Army general--the hurdles to the presidency are merely challenges to overcome. For them, the race is on to be the first to break through the ultimate glass ceiling.

It took a while for the reality to sink in. In the fall of 1998, Democratic operatives began frantically calling Hillary Rodham Clinton with tantalizing news: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York's senior senator, wasn't going to run for re-election when his term was up in 2000. Would Hillary be interested in running for the seat?

"I thought it was an off-the-wall idea, and told them so," Mrs. Clinton recalled in a revealing interview with us. She assumed somebody would quickly step in to fill the gap. But that didn't happen. "And so everybody kept pushing me and pushing me. And then one day, I think it was in February, I went to church, I came home, and the phone rang, and a friend of mine said, 'Did you see Bob Torricelli on "Meet the Press''?' "

Torricelli, the New Jersey senator responsible for recruiting Democratic Senate candidates, predicted on the show that Hillary would run. Mrs. Clinton immediately called him.

"You're going to do it," he said.

"I'm not going to do it," she replied.

Retelling the story months later, she said, "I'm having an argument about my life with Bob Torricelli! But the idea just kept coming back, and people kept coming to see me. And so then I began to put my toe in the water."

It took months to convince herself it was what she wanted. "Every step along the way, I had to stop and say, 'Am I doing this because Bob Torricelli said I was going to do it? Am I doing it because [New York Rep.] Charlie Rangel keeps calling me and saying that I'm going to do it, or wants me to do it, or whatever?' "

Many prominent Democrats--and even some of Hillary's close friends--thought a Senate run was a fool's errand. "Are you crazy?" Liz Moynihan, the senator's influential wife, asked her. In some ways, Mrs. Clinton seemed ill equipped for the rigors of a campaign. Eight years of scandal and scrutiny had left her wary of the press--and the public--and she had long ago sought refuge in the protective bubble that aides provided her. As a candidate she would once again be under the microscope.

There were other arguments against running. As a former First Lady, Hillary would have a high profile and a lot of influence. She could become the head of a foundation, write books, give lectures, sit on corporate boards. In many ways, she would have much greater power as a private citizen than as a junior Democrat in a Senate ruled by the same Republicans who tried to oust her husband from office. Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Moynihan aide, says he couldn't fathom why she would want what many considered a demotion. Then the answer hit him. "She wants to be president."

He wasn't alone in thinking so. Aides say Hillary's interest in running for Senate surged after Elizabeth Dole left the Red Cross in January 1999 to launch her bid for the presidency. "That killed her," says one associate. "You could track her interest after that." Seeing Dole get attention as the first possible woman president accelerated Hillary's timetable for getting herself into the public's eye. "She'd love to be the first," says the aide.

Despite the speculation, the notion that being a senator would be some kind of comedown made no sense to Hillary. "A comedown for her is an ex First Lady with nothing else on her resume," says an aide. "I don't want to work for anybody," she told a friend. "I want to be my own boss. I'm not interested in making that much money."

Republicans were quick to fan rumors that Hillary's Senate bid was merely the first step in a Clinton plot to recapture the White House. A fund-raising appeal sent to Alabama Republicans envisioned a Hillary presidential campaign in four years. "Scary, isn't it," the letter warned.

The buzz that Hillary was interested in the Senate only as a steppingstone to the Oval Office worried Hillary's aides, who told the First Lady she had to say something to defuse it. Mrs. Clinton pledged that, if elected, she would serve her full six-year term.

Campaigning in New York, Hillary has discovered it to be a far different experience as a candidate than it had been as a spouse. One of her early challenges has been simply learning to speak in the first person. After so many years as Bill's number two, she says, she's grown accustomed to writing herself out of speeches. "I realized for me to stand up and say, 'I believe,' not 'We believe' or 'He believes' or 'America believes,' which I've been able to do in the past, it's very different," she says.

Hillary calls the campaign environment in New York "a constant hazing" that tests her resilience each day. "They dump on you, and you get back up and keep going," she says. "And it's like anything, once you do it for a while, you get the sense of how it works, and you're either ready to do it or you're not." Asked if, in the dark of night, she thinks about losing, she replies with an air of defiance that is classic Hillary. "I'll have an interesting, full life no matter what happens in November," she declares. Even if she doesn't win, she'll have plenty of opportunity to work on the issues she cares about: "So for me the losing does not hold any fear at all." Win or lose, Hillary Clinton has, for the first time, entered the arena on her own--the crucial first step to the Senate and, just perhaps, one day, the White House.

It's not hard to tell that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, is Robert Kennedy's oldest daughter. Her toothy smile and constant restless energy are vintage Kennedy. But people who meet her for the first time often come away surprised. She can, at times, seem as unpolished as her Uncle JFK was smooth. On one wall of her office, adorned with photos of RFK and paintings of Lincoln and Roosevelt, is, oddly, a portrait of Israel's Golda Meir. "I needed a woman," she says with disarming bluntness. "She founded a country. That was impressive. She deserved the recognition." When an aide delivers a chocolate milkshake, a visitor jokes that she must not have had time for lunch. "Oh no, I had lunch," she answers. "I get hungry."

Townsend's straightforward, no-nonsense style has its advantages. Voters love her. Now in her second term, she is considered likely to become the state's next governor--and is mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick. Until his tragic plane crash last year, Kathleen's cousin JFK Jr. was considered the most direct heir to Camelot. Now attention has shifted to 48-year-old Townsend as the Kennedy best positioned to occupy the White House.

Rather than compete on the Kennedy clan's own turf in Massachusetts--where the family's boys were encouraged to enter politics but the girls were not--Townsend entered politics in Maryland after her husband was offered a job there. Over the past 14 years, she has carved a reputation of her own. She ran for Congress in 1986, but lost, then founded an organization dedicated to getting kids involved in community service. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening chose her as his running mate in 1994 partly because of her name and political connections. But once in office, she took on unusual authority. She championed public-school reform and oversaw innovative anti-crime programs that were tough on offenders.

For many Kennedys, success has competed with scandal. Not so for Kathleen. Married to college professor David Townsend for more than 25 years, she is known as the "UnKennedy" or "Clean Kathleen"--down to earth and reluctant to press the advantage of her birthright. Townsend can focus on her political career in part because her husband takes an active role in raising their four children. As Kathleen's political life took hold, he did more of the family cooking and carpooling.

Yet questions persist about whether she has what it takes to make it in the combative environment of national politics. A friend once despaired over the way Townsend, a slight figure to start with, seemed to shrink in the limelight. Townsend is aware of the doubts. She admits she will never be a megawatt Kennedy, but is learning the value of at least looking the part. She once thought nothing of dashing out in public with her hair disheveled and her hands stained blue from leaky pens. Now, like any aspiring pol--man or woman--she takes greater care with her appearance.

Townsend says she believes the political climate is much different now for women than it was in the past. "I'm now finding 8-year-old girls who say, 'I want to be the first woman president'," Townsend says. "That's a change from 15 years ago. It's very seldom that I give a speech that somebody doesn't bring up the idea of a woman president."

Townsend is realistic about her own prospects for the presidency. "Look, I do the best I can, but you can't predict," she says. "I think it's a bad thing to spend your time thinking, 'Where can I be down the road?' " In Maryland, at least, plenty of women are hoping Townsend will be the first woman to move into the Oval Office. At a luncheon last year in Ocean City, supporters passed out buttons of Townsend's face--gazing down from Mount Rushmore.

Kay Bailey Hutchison wants to run for president and she's not embarrassed to say so. The Texas Republican won't make her move right away, but by 2004, when she will have been in the Senate for more than a decade. An influential voice on the Armed Services Committee and a force for moderation on social issues like abortion, Hutchison thinks she has the right mix of positions and experience to be a credible presidential candidate. "If [Pakistan's] Benazir Bhutto can be elected prime minister, I really think we are big enough to handle it," she says. "Good heavens, a Muslim country!"

Hutchison's willingness to acknowledge her ambition is surprising. A woman who expresses such aspirations usually invites disbelief. Yet most political pros believe that the first woman president will come out of the GOP. "The Democrats still have a Ferraro hangover," says a Texas analyst. "Democratic women look too wussy, too liberal."

With her honeyed hair teased into a Texas-size frame, Hutchison could be the model for Senator Barbie doll. Her sugary charm puts off some voters--young women, especially--but these feminine qualities have served her well in a state where good ole boys hold sway. She was the first Republican woman elected to the state legislature and the first woman of either party to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate.

Hutchison started toying with the idea of running for office as a young woman. She graduated from law school in 1967, a time when few law firms hired women, and couldn't find work. Hired as a reporter covering the Texas Legislature for a local TV station, she began to think she could do at least as good a job as the politicians she wrote about--and probably better. She tested the notion five years later, winning a seat in the Texas Legislature.

Hutchison got right to work, helping to pass a bill that made it harder to introduce a rape victim's sexual history as evidence in a trial. Aides still chuckle about how she got lawmakers to pass state insurance coverage for mammograms. The men running things opposed it until Hutchison discovered that penile implants to treat sexual impotence were covered. When she threatened to expose the double standard, the male legislators quietly added the mammogram benefit.

After two terms, she went to Washington to serve on the National Transportation Safety Board, then back to Texas, where she married Ray Hutchison, a Dallas bond lawyer. She started a new life as a businesswoman, buying and reviving a failing company called McGraw Candies. Itching to get back into politics, she ran for Senate in 1993 and won.

Strong-willed and articulate, Hutchison has done her best to stay in the spotlight as a senator, taking stands on issues she hopes will give her broad national appeal when she eventually launches her presidential bid. She has supported bills on combat readiness and sexual harassment, and has pushed for breast-cancer research. She also sponsored a tough anti-stalking law.

Hutchison would have been a good prospect for the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket in 2000--but the Constitution prohibits candidates from the same state running together. Still, George W. Bush's candidacy raises another prospect for Hutchison: a bid to replace him as governor, a move she hasn't ruled out.

For now, she's biding her time. She's amassed a huge campaign war chest and is regarded as a sure bet for re-election this year. After that? "I will start looking at the lay of the land" for a presidential run, she says. "I think I have every capability to run on my own." Hutchison says what she wants. And she's pretty good at getting it.

Nobody expected Christine Todd Whitman, a political neophyte from New Jersey's wealthy horse country, to be elected the state's governor back in 1993. She hadn't voted in local school-board elections because her children attended private school. Her aides fretted about her pampered, privileged image, and were constantly after her to warm up her frosty demeanor. Whitman grew up in a household so staunchly Republican that she gave her lemonade-stand profits to the party. Inexperienced, she ran a clumsy campaign that was plagued with gaffes and lacked focus. But then, in the final weeks, she made an unexpected promise that sealed her victory: she would cut state taxes by 30 percent. Whitman won, then delivered on her pledge months ahead of schedule.

Suddenly, governors from other states were seeking her advice. Newt Gingrich asked her to give the response to Bill Clinton's 1995 State of the Union speech. Now in her second term, she is the longest-serving big-state woman governor--and is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential choice. Many political observers think Whitman is the prototype for the kind of woman who could become the nation's first female president--a job she hesitantly admits to thinking about. Whitman has a star quality that is both stylistic and substantive. She offers proven executive experience, a record on issues of national concern and a confident media image. The overall effect matches her personality, which is cool and analytical. She is reserved. She doesn't often make mistakes. Every word she utters sounds calculated, not in the sense that it is phony, but that it is part of a political philosophy anchored in personal conviction.

But if Whitman does aspire to the White House, she'll have to overcome some serious opposition first--mostly from inside her own party. She is unabashedly pro-choice, a position that has made her many enemies in the party's powerful right wing. She has stared down her party's leadership and held firm even on favoring federal money to help poor women pay for abortions. It's hard to find liberal Democrats willing to take that stand anymore. In a move that drew especially harsh scorn from fellow Republicans, Whitman vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortions when legislators refused to exempt women whose health is endangered. Her veto was overturned.

Whitman says her pro-choice position springs from conservative values about limiting the role of government and keeping it out of private decisions. But she is thought to be so divisive a figure in her own party that a presidential nominee who dared name her his running mate would prompt an uproar among the party's conservatives. Last year, in an effort to calm the waters, a top adviser to Whitman sat down with Ralph Reed, the political consultant and former Christian Coalition leader, offering him a contract for his consulting services. Reed declined. Signing with Whitman, he explained, would make them both look like hypocrites.

Whitman acknowledges she's not beloved by everyone in the GOP, but doesn't think that will necessarily be a barrier in the future. The power religious conservatives now have inside the party may not last, as more moderate candidates like John McCain gain national appeal and the various factions of the right compete for a shrinking share of the electorate. Whitman predicts a woman will top the ticket within the next 12 years--and doesn't reject the possibility that she could be the one. Meanwhile, she's keeping her distance from the leading voices of the right. When Pat Buchanan made disparaging comments about her views, she had a ready quip: "Look, there's room in my party for him. I'm just not sure there's room in his party for me."