With Barack Obama, we can watch our "24" presidential fantasy and have it too.
A long time ago in an electoral galaxy far far away, i.e. January 2007, I wondered aloud if Fox’s popular war-on-terror fantasia 24 could help erase America’s Fear of a Black President. We’d already been watching a smart, wise, and elected African American president in the person of Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer for several years—could we continue to do that in real flesh-and-blood life? Well, to quote the man of the hour, day, week, month and decade, yes we can. We finally have our very own David Palmer with the even more previously unthinkable name Barack Hussein Obama. Not even Joel Surnow and the de facto visionaries on the 24 team could make that imaginary leap into presidential nomenclature. The irony, of course, is that due to the Hollywood writers’ strike, 24 and its model African-American presidents were entirely absent during the entire 2008 election season. Yet in a way, we didn’t really need them. Obama had already clearly absorbed the hallowed media-age lesson first demonstrated by John F. Kennedy and his 1960 televised debate against Richard Nixon’s sweaty five-o’clock shadow. That is, never, ever underestimate the subconscious power of looking calm, cool, and “presidential” on TV—especially if you’re not the traditional model of WASP male political material (JFK was the first Catholic president, remember?). I’m well aware of how much this election actually (finally) hinged on substantial issues for a change. Nevertheless…
Indeed, the most striking difference between January 2007 and now is just how deeply the country has gone to Hades in the proverbial hand basket. As the commentators have noted again and again, this year’s very real and pressing economic disaster made a lot of middle-class and working-class voters (except the inimitably cretinous Joe the Plumber) look beyond the surface of race to consider substance. On one level, the matter was quite simple. Are you better off now after eight years of a stridently incompetent Republican administration? Hell, no. What’s the most logical response in a two-party system? Vote for the other one. Done. Still, when it came to those surfaces that might sway people one way or the other, Obama’s media persona became an exceptionally potent asset. John McCain may have derided the blockbuster 30-minute Obamamercial as presumptuous, but it did what 24 had been helping viewers do since the early days of George W. Bush’s tenure. It made it possible to really grasp what it might look like to have an African-American (who isn’t a fictional creation this time) in the Oval Office. And by all indications, it looked quite fine to millions of viewers even without super agent Jack Bauer around to tell us it was fine. Then again, composure does tend to be more reassuring than peevishness and cluelessness.
For though TV viewers may have been without 24 proper, it has echoed throughout the campaign in ways beyond the Obama Show. Ye olde white guy John McCain may not be criminal and treasonous like 24’s anti-Palmer President Logan, but he wound up coming across as similarly craven and temperamentally ill-suited. From the operatically cynical move of picking Sarah Palin for his running mate, through the ridiculous name-calling, insinuations, and negative rhetoric that wafted forth from his campaign, McCain came across as a man who had sold whatever soul he once had to the Darth Vader power machine of Karl Rove. He was not the good guy he’d once been. For all the yammering about country first, it became rather apparent that what he really meant was personal victory/interests first à la Logan. Given that this has been the guiding credo of President Dick Cheney and it’s had such fantabulous results, I can’t imagine why this aura wouldn’t be appealing. By the same token, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that if Palin were to become president (and become the first female president via a technicality like the long-departed Commander in Chief’s Geena Davis), she would be as unequipped for the task as Logan and disaster would ensue. In contrast, Obama made jokes, firmly pointed out the salient facts about his opponent, talked policy and measured optimism, and maintained an easy-going yet focused poker face during debates while McCain seemed to seethe with inchoate rage. And let’s not forget that Obama also selected a vice president who is well qualified to step into the big chair should the need arise. Joe Biden may have a delightful capacity for verbal diarrhea, but he also knows the difference between Sunni and Shia, that there is a difference between Sunni and Shia, and that Sunni and Shia aren’t just cute potential names for Palin offspring. He wouldn’t need to call Bill Clinton in a panic for tips on how to be president.
The candidates’ responses to the financial markets’ disastrous September collapse, however, afforded viewers the most critical 24 moment. For what was it if not a well-publicized demonstration of how each potential president would respond in a crisis? McCain reacted with melodramatic announcements about suspending his campaign and helicoptering to Washington to broker a bailout deal stat (after stopping for his interview with CBS News, of course). Now, if you’re going to make such a big hairy public fuss about how you’re going to drop everything and do something, then perhaps you should in fact do something. By all accounts, McCain did not. He also promptly un-suspended his campaign. Here is how such images could be interpreted: Erratic Crazy Man Who Runs Around Shrieking Uselessly While the House Burns. Not comforting. Obama also left the campaign trail to go to that emergency meeting in Washington. He did it, however, without all the overwrought theatrics. It was simply something he had to do because that would be his job. It didn’t matter that the meeting and then the subsequent weekend came and went without a deal being put in place. What mattered was that Obama did what we’re always told to do in an emergency, and what David Palmer did consistently on 24: remain calm (and then act). We could get behind President Palmer and his belief in Jack Bauer, regardless of what Bauer did at times, because he always seemed to really consider the complex problem of the moment and then make a judicious move that would best benefit the country. Calmly. Palmer understood that a loose cannon could be effective, as long as that loose cannon isn’t the president.
So now the election has ended, and the American public has decided that when the country’s in the toilet, we really do want a David Palmer leading us. We want calm, cool, and collected, and we don’t care what color that comes in (then again, when the difference between old and new is so immediately visible, it’s probably a lot easier to believe that things will in fact be different). Barack Obama’s election is an extraordinary moment that seemed hard to believe would actually happen until it did. Then again, if you’re a pop culture junkie, you may have seen it coming since the 1990s. After all, when a meteor is hurtling towards the Earth in that decade-old blockbuster Deep Impact, who is the ultimate Presidential comforter amid catastrophe? Morgan Freeman. Intelligent, steady, forthright Morgan Freeman. Dang, those Hollywood hacks can be prescient sometimes.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.