How Similar Is Téa Leoni’s Character on Madam Secretary to Hillary Clinton?

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Hillary Clinton once joked, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” In the first episode of the new hit CBS drama Madam Secretary, the title character does exactly that. Co-creators Morgan Freeman and executive producer Lori McCreary admit that the show — which stars Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, the secretary of State in the age of terrorism and internet-based security breaches — was inspired by Clinton’s tenure in the office. And that’s not the only similarity between the two women. For example, Clinton once said in a speech, “There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development. And we are responsible for two of the three legs.” Similarly, Leoni has incredible legs.

But key differences also abound: Clinton traveled more than any of her predecessors, while her fictional counterpart is now several months into the job and doesn't appear to have traveled at all. And, predictably for a lead character on network TV, McCord approaches unrealistic perfection: She speaks French, German, Arabic, and Farsi (Clinton: only English), and she’s been given the job because she’s the “least political person” the president knows (Clinton: a tad more Machiavellian). Still, the doppelgängers have more in common than not. For one, they both read scripts. Also, they both spell Madam without the ultimate e, so clearly they hate the French. Below, we compare and contrast Clinton and McCord, tally which Madam Secretary plots were ripped from actual headlines, and predict which parts of Hillary’s reign will be fictionalized next.

FAMILY

  • Bess's college-professor husband, Henry McCord (Tim Daly), is charming, sexy, and totally worshipped by the female subordinates in his cult of personality. But similarities between him and Slick Willie end there; Henry is faithful. In fact, he has such a strong sense of character that in one episode, Bess, fearful her job will compromise her ethics, asks Henry if he will promise to be her moral "touchstone." Bill Clinton's stones touched a lot, but never in that way.
  • Another difference between the two marriages: Bess worries her masculine energy might be ruining Henry's and her sex life. I'm not suggesting Hillary Clinton has no masculine energy, or that it didn't affect her sex life, but I do doubt she ever worried about it.

RESUMÉ

  • Prior to her position as secretary of State, Clinton had been a U.S. Senator, the First Lady, and a lawyer. McCord's résumé includes university professor and CIA operative. These CVs do have one thing in common, though, since, while First Lady, Clinton was essentially acting as a spy for her future run for president.
  • Both Clinton and McCord were also initially shocked by the secretary job offer. According to Clinton aide Philippe Reines, when he emailed Hillary that Obama was considering her for the position, she responded, “Not in a million years.” Similarly, when CBS's fictional president (Keith Carradine, vaguely reminiscent of Rahm Emanuel — a nod to who was really in power back then?) asks McCord to take the position, she laughs in his face. As much as Clinton protested, however, and even tried to say no, many believe she was simply posturing and always planned to take the job. Similarly, when McCord was visited by her own president, she was in her stables, literally shoveling shit. 

ADVERSARIES

  • Clinton famously claimed there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” maneuvering against Bill and her. McCord appears to also face an interior conspiracy, which will be revealed over the course of the season, and looks to be its most compelling aspect.
  • McCord’s biggest adversary at this point is White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek). Clinton was also forced to work daily with her biggest enemy, Obama.

RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES

The first three episodes borrow plots from some of the biggest trials of Clinton’s appointment. In the pilot, two American brothers are arrested in Syria and accused of spying (a.k.a. Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal, caught hiking on the Iran-Iraq border in 2009). The second episode deals with an armed mob outside an American embassy (this time in Sana’a, Yemen, rather than Benghazi, Libya). And in the third episode, McCord manages the fallout from a WikiLeaks-type security breach. 

FUTURE PLOTS?

The story lines are so similar, the only differences between fact and fiction are in the Secretary's responses. On CBS, McCord seems to be righting the wrongs of the past, of which she of course isn’t always aware. Time and again, she gets it right, sometimes miraculously, and never while compromising her integrity. Remembering that opponents called Hillary “Lady Macbeth” during Bill’s presidential campaign, it seems that Madam Secretary endeavors to reposition her as Desdemona — a virtuous woman wrongly accused. If that’s the case, the writers will have plenty of material to revisit. If our predictions for future plotlines are correct, McCord will ...

... travel to Russia to successfully block the incarceration of an anarchist rock band called “Vagina Brawl.” 

... visit troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she actually is under hostile fire from snipers, yet she tells no press about it later. 

... support a Navy Seal mission to locate and assassinate the head of ISIL, but at the last minute, order his capture instead, so she can rehabilitate him with therapy and Prozac, and find him a job at a dry cleaner's on M Street.

... give a cigar to an intern, tell him to enjoy it, and then go home to her husband.

... fall a lot but never need surgery.

... take first place in Iowa at a pie-eating contest, beating out the first black man to ever compete so successfully in a pie-eating contest, as well as a man who spends $1,250 on a haircut.

... be cruelly criticized at a press conference where she will not just crack her voice and cry, but also spontaneously lactate.

... have imaginary conversations with a former woman of power, but instead of Eleanor Roosevelt, it’s Amelia Earhart, who's alive and living in Boca, because clearly CBS can rewrite history.

... be elected president.

STUMP SPEECH

Of course, McCord is her own character, based less on Clinton than on the network’s need for a likable badass who’s never wrong and never wears pantsuits. Still, when she faces the exact same trials as Clinton, comparisons are inevitable. The show, and by extension CBS and its CEO Leslie Moonves, have already attracted Clinton detractors and conspiracy theorists who see the production as one big campaign ad for Hillary 2016. But if the writers have had to alter so many of Hillary’s decisions and actions, then the show is ultimately more in criticism of her than in praise. In its promotion of righteous leadership, Madam Secretary is definitely more satisfying than political theater, but it may not be as entertaining. At least no one will ever have to ask, “What’s the difference?”