In a special edition of Canon Fodder, Lucia Bozzola suggests that if Jack Bauer has no fear of a black president, then maybe we won’t either.
It’s a year and nine months until the next presidential election. So naturally, the campaign has begun. What better way to forget the fact that our current leader still has slightly under two years left to send the country further down the Constitutional toilet? This one’s supposed to be a humdinger as well. For the first time since 1928, not only is the incumbent not eligible for re-election (let us give thanks), but the vice president also has no designs on the higher office (let us give thanks and throw a big party to celebrate). It’s a free-for-all, folks. As far as the media is concerned, however, only two competitors really matter so far, because if either won, s/he would be a big ‘ol First. Hillary Clinton would the first Numero Uno lady (unless both Bush and Cheney were impeached in my fantasy world, and Madam Speaker Pelosi assumed the office). And Barack Obama would be the first African American president of these United States. Of course, now that Gov. Bill Richardson has thrown his proverbial hat into the proverbial ring, he could be the first Latino president. We’ve come such a long way since John F. Kennedy was the first president who was (gasp, shock, horrors) a Catholic. Right?
That remains to be seen. Given that most of the commentary and prognostications about the Clinton-Obama competition boil down to whether we as a nation are more sexist or more racist, it’s hard to say with confidence at the moment that we have indeed advanced to the apex of true equality for all. That will occur when nobody cares enough to highlight the gender, race, ethnicity and/or religion of any of the candidates—and not just because they’re all white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. As to the sexist/racist question, for every compelling argument that Clinton has the edge (demographics, background, female leaders of other countries), there is an equally compelling one for Obama (demographics, background, a long-standing preference for male leadership in this country). Clinton has the fame and more government experience, but Obama has the advantage of not evoking deep visceral memories about Oval Office blowjobs and blue dresses. In these discussions, pop culture has taken a decided back seat to such concerns as the numbers of women and African Americans in the Senate and House, voting patterns among men and women, and the salient details of Clinton’s and Obama’s backgrounds. Those things are important, to be sure. Nevertheless, when it comes to pop culture making it easier for Americans to wrap their minds around new things (yes, Isaiah—gays are people too), Obama has the distinct edge. And that edge is named Palmer. David and Wayne Palmer.
You see, a significant portion of the media-viewing public has already been watching African American candidates, presidents, and ex-presidents for five straight years and counting on the much-hailed Fox serial 24. It’s no stretch to figure out that Kiefer Sutherland’s CTU super-agent Jack Bauer is just the man this country wanted post 9/11, or that the series is so successful because it confronts terrorist fears head on in a manner that is reassuring (Bauer will save the day), but not sugar-coated (a lot of people he/we love still die). It also doesn’t take much to see the reactionary bent to its stories: Jack’s unfettered, occasionally illegal ass-kicking is always a lot more effective than any namby-pamby negotiations. Still, within this conservative, if never actually “politicized” world (party affiliations usually aren’t a pressing concern during the six Very Bad Days), 24 has also done something that would make the Fox News honchos plotz if reality were to follow the lead of fiction. It has made the presence of an African American president not only normal, but also desirable.
Take, for instance, how the presence of the dearly departed David Palmer, and in this season his brother Wayne is treated by the show. Their race isn’t a big hairy deal. It’s certainly not the point of the show. Contrast that to Hillary Clinton’s canceled TV avatar Commander in Chief. The presence of a female president was precisely the point of the show, because oh my God, isn’t that just so high concept weird? Isn’t that precisely the thing we’d only see on television and in the movies? Not so in 24. It isn’t weird at all. Wayne Palmer expresses doubts as to whether he can be as good a leader as his brother in the opening hours of the current season, only to be assured by his white staff that he’s absolutely the right man for the job. Then there’s the matter of how these non-white male presidents got into office. In Commander in Chief, the president dies, so Madam Vice President becomes Madam President. In 24, the Palmers are elected. Fancy that. In those off years and months between terrorist crises, David Palmer wins elections, and Wayne Palmer wins because he has the right last name (now there’s a detail that’s right on the money). The point, though, is that they win because they got enough votes. They don’t enter the office on a technicality. They are president because people like them. They really really like them. In other words, the minds behind 24 (right wing or not) were able to conceive of the idea of a black man being elected by the general public, and not toss it out as patently absurd. Joel Surnow could teach Commander in Chief’s Rod Lurie a thing or two.
Then there is the matter of what kind of president David Palmer was, and perhaps Wayne will be. Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer is smart, charismatic, informed, judicious and all of those other things our current commander in chief is not. The fact that he understands and appreciates Jack Bauer’s value as a wily loose cannon, and trusts him with the fate of the nation whenever things get out of hand, only makes him shine all the more brightly. In a notable coincidence, one of the recent articles about Obama’s background highlighted his ability to be a uniter, not a divider as the president of Harvard Law Review. One of his African American classmates, who had been offended initially that Obama appointed more whites to the editorial board, praised him for looking past race and choosing whomever was best for the job. Obama doesn’t see race in the same way that Palmer doesn’t: they just want the best people for the jobs. And who’s better than Jack? So far, DB Woodside’s Wayne has also put his faith in Jack the way his brother did—and he’s classy enough to know that he should apologize to Jack for asking him to die for his country, even though Jack knows that such requests are part of his job and the president’s job. Contrast that to George “Power Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” Bush. And contrast that, not incidentally, to the one notable white president featured on 24.
The Palmers haven’t been 24’s only presidents. Who can forget the mewling veep-turned-vile president Charles Logan? He’s weak, he’s venal, he’s treasonous, and he’s so overwhelmed by the unexpected assumption of presidential powers that he calls David Palmer for help. The African American Palmer knows how to be “presidential,” whereas the more typical WASP model Logan does not. One of the reasons a freshman senator from Illinois with only two years of D.C. experience under his belt is even in the mix, let alone a major player, is because Obama proved in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that he has the presence to be “presidential.” In the current season, Wayne shows within the first several hours that he too knows how to be “presidential.” He’s certainly a lot more comforting discussing a nuke exploding in California than Bush was after the World Trade Center went down. Ultimately, though, it still comes down to ability, and in that respect, the Palmers win hands down. “We” are probably going to be better off under Wayne Palmer than Charles Logan, just as we were in better hands with David Palmer.
Could such a state of affairs translate to real world actions? It depends on one’s faith in the general population outside of the bluest blues that are allegedly more open to such things. Considering all of the noise year after year about the deleterious effects of TV sex and violence, not to mention negative stereotypes, it would be unwise to completely discount what one of our favorite TV shows has been telling us for most of the Bush presidency. Indeed, one writer noted that the cabal of older white men currently in the White House have done such a bang-up job that we finally might be over the knee-jerk assumption that anyone but a white Christian man wouldn’t be right for the presidency. Then again, we might not. In the latest Iowa poll, John Edwards is ahead of the Democratic rainbow coalition pack.
Canon Fodder is a bi-weekly analysis of politics and society.