Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"Presidential Images: African-American Presidents in the Television Series 24 and Barack Obama’s Election Victory" by Károly Pintér

Károly Pintér is Associate Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, Péter Pázmány Catholic University. His study entitled Anatomy of Utopia: Narration, Estrangement and Ambiguity in More, Wells, Huxley and Clarke was published by McFarland in 2010 and won the HUSSE Junior Book Award in the same year. He also wrote introductory textbooks on British and American culture, literary essays on Beckett, Huxley, More, and Wells, as well as studies on the separation of church and state in the US. Currently he is Vice-Dean for Academic Affairs at the Faculty of Humanities of PPKE. Email:

During my most recent stay in the US in 2003, my wife and I repeatedly saw a commercial on television advertising some sort of charity organization for children with images and voices of kids asking such questions as ‘Can I be a ballerina?’, ‘Can I be an astronaut?’ One black child was pointedly assigned the provocative question, ‘Can I be a president?’ Both of us sitting in front of the screen instinctively replied: ‘No, sorry, you can’t!’ I think our gut reaction faithfully mirrored the overwhelming popular sentiment in the US at the time: despite the enormous progress made by African-Americans in all areas of American public life in the last 50 years, the highest elected office of the country appeared firmly the monopoly of white male politicians of predominantly middle-class Protestant background. This perception was echoed in a cynical way in the first season of the popular TV show House M.D., when the surly doctor is treating a fictitious black senator with presidential ambitions, and tells him with his trademark bluntness: “You’re not gonna be President either way. They don’t call it the White House because of the paint job” (“Role Model”). The episode was aired in 2005, only 3 years before Barack Obama’s ground-breaking victory.

The success of Barack Obama at the 2008 presidential election was justifiably considered by all commentators an epoch-making breakthrough in American history, an achievement that many observers and ordinary voters believed to be impossible even during the campaign. To quote African-American theologian Johnny Bernard Hill, “Barack Obama, in so many ways, is an expression of the fulfillment of the American dream […] If Obama’s presidency means anything, it marks a grand achievement in the unfolding historical American struggle for freedom and human dignity” (1–2). In a country where the institutional segregation and discrimination of African-Americans was still widespread half a century ago, the idea of a black person occupying the presidency epitomizes the crossing of the ultimate and most powerful color line in American society, and as such, it seemed truly utopian in light of the slow and difficult rise of African-Americans since the end of slavery, and particularly regarding their chronic underrepresentation in the federal government.

The very first black Representative and Senator entered the US Congress in 1870 during the Reconstruction from Deep Southern states that had a black majority (Representative Joseph H. Rainey from South Carolina and Senator Hiram Revels from Mississippi), and until the end of the Reconstruction a total of 16 African-American Congressmen were elected from the South (Kelley-Lewis 250). Revels was appointed for only one year, but Rainey proved to be the most successful black politician of the 19th century, reelected four times and serving until 1879 (“Revels” and “Rainey”). African-American success at federal elections, however, proved short-lived: the 1887 Congress was the first since the Reconstruction to convene without a black member, and between 1901–1929, not a single African-American was elected to either house, thanks to the successful efforts of Southern whites to disfranchise African-American voters by discriminatory state constitutions and legislation (“The Negroes’”). In 1928, Oscar de Priest became the first African American to be elected to the House from a Northern state (Illinois), but only a dozen more freely elected African-Americans made it to the lower chamber of Congress during the next thirty years (“Keeping the Faith”). The first black Senator of the 20th century, Edward W. Brooke, was elected from Massachusetts in 1966, and while he owed his success partly to his moderate racial position and deliberate distance from the militant wing of the civil rights movement, he nonetheless became a symbolic figure of the new ascendancy of African Americans (“Brooke”). It is telling, however, that Barack Obama became only the fifth African-American Senator in US history when elected from Illinois in 2006, and only the third to be elected after the Reconstruction.

Other elected offices opened up to African Americans even later than the federal legislature. The first black mayor of a major city, Carl B. Stokes, was elected in Cleveland in 1967, while the first African-American governor of a US state, L. Douglas Wilder, won his position in Virginia in 1990, and until the present day only one other black state governor has been elected: Deval Patrick has been governing Massachusetts since 2007 (“Famous Firsts”). African Americans had also very slim chances to be appointed to influential positions before the 1960s: the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court was Thurgood Marshall, appointed in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who also appointed the first black Cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver, in 1966 to the rather modest position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (“Famous Firsts”). But the first truly influential African-American Cabinet members were Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, both chosen by George W. Bush in 2001. Colin Powell also holds another important record ‘first’: he became the first African-American general to be appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top position in the US armed forces, in 1989.

Reviewing the protracted and halting penetration of African-Americans in the higher echelons of state and federal political establishment, it can be considered downright astonishing that Barack Obama, with only two years of his very first Senate term under his belt, successfully challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and then triumphed against the veteran John McCain of the Republican Party. The possible causes of his rather unexpected success are many; in my essay I wish to argue that there may have been one factor not generally recognized by political analysts, and that is the impact of popular entertainment media, especially prime-time television dramas.

The enormous public influence of television as the most pervasive mass medium in the US requires no presentation of detailed evidence. Kathryn Montgomery has described television as “the central storyteller for the culture. It is the fiction programming, even more than news and public affairs, that most effectively embodies and reinforces the dominant values in American society” (6). Leslie Henderson, who examines the social impact of fictional television dramas, observes that

Storylines in television soap opera reach large audiences and are discussed across different media formats (from television news and press to magazines and internet sites). … The soap opera plays a central role within current debates about the blurring of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news. As the news media currently faces criticism over ‘dumbing down’ in terms of content and presentation, the soap opera has emerged as a format within which controversial or socially sensitive issues are played out. (11–12)

Such approaches rest on the assumption that audiences perceive television fiction as a modified version of reality, as a special kind of mirror which reflects and highlights certain aspects of contemporary American social and cultural life. The same perception motivates criticisms of television’s negative or explicitly destructive impact on certain groups of viewers. Montgomery singles out some groups who are prone to criticize prime-time television programming, such as women, minorities, gays, the disabled, and seniors, who complain about their own alleged misrepresentation or merely their lack of visibility in such programs. Conservative religious groups, on the other hand, consider television a threat to traditional family and moral values. Social advocacy groups tend to urge such fictional stories to include messages on birth control, drug abuse, health concerns, or worry about the impact of certain aspects of programs such as on-screen violence and sex (8–9). Henderson cites examples when soap operas have been produced with the explicit objective of changing their audience’s social behavior in developing countries, such as the South African soap opera Soul City, in which the production team addresses pressing social issues in a realistic setting in order to communicate messages to their audience. The head of the research team responsible for the credible social background of the episodes sums up their strategy the following way: “the secret is to make sure that the drama remains recognisably real, while subtly redefining reality in such a way as to alter perceptions of what is normal and good” (quoted Henderson 18–19).

The affective power of ‘realist’ fiction has always been very strong on mass audiences, who often confuse fiction and reality and treat fictional characters as if they had an empirical existence. The visual media of the 20th century, film and television, carried the affective power of ‘realism’ to new and extreme heights. A movie does not have to resort to the mediation of language to relate a story; it can show characters and events via direct images, lending an immediacy and presence to the fiction that neither written nor oral literature can produce, and the genuine setting and environment (a living room, a business office, a downtown street, or a spectacular mountain, etc.) creates an impression of authenticity that no theatrical production is able to imitate. The appearance of reality is what filmmakers and soap opera producers can exploit: the credible, empirically realistic setting facilitates what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” (174) on the part of the reader, or, in case of visual media, the audience. This means that the audience, in order to engage fully with a given story, needs to accept certain fundamental premises of the story’s imaginary world and, for the time being, neglects aspects that foreground its fictitiousness or contradict the audience’s common sense experience of what is possible in ordinary reality. Coleridge originally applied the phrase to the reading experience of his own romantic poetry utilizing supernatural, fantastic elements that obviously contradict the sensory experience of most people, therefore such poems require, in his phrase, “poetic faith” (174). A mimetic or ‘realist’ story, which became the dominant convention of narrative literature since the late 17th century (Hume 34–39), makes more modest demands on the audience: they merely have to accept the proposition that such characters could actually exist and the events recounted in the story may have happened to them; in short, they should believe in the plausibility of the fiction.

The presentation of American presidents in Hollywood blockbusters or TV dramas provides a characteristic example of how the apparent ‘realism’ of such fiction is based on idealized conventions that – at least in the belief of scriptwriters – are widely shared and supported by the audience. The predominant movie image of fictional US presidents on screen presents a late-middle-aged, white, male, middle-class, WASP figure with an emphatically Anglo surname, a commanding presence and a slightly or grossly idealized, larger-than-life moral character. Considering the fact that during the 20th century all but two presidents have generally matched this stereotype (with the well-known exceptions of John F. Kennedy, who departed from the norm by virtue of his relatively young age and his Catholic faith, and Richard Nixon, whose epic failure as the moral role model of the nation immeasurably tarnished the image of the presidency), one may claim that the image of the desirable American president works as a self-fulfilling prophecy: only people with the appropriate racial, ethnic, and social background, physical appearance and political record have a chance to win at the election. The best-known fictional representations of American presidents in the last twenty years did not venture far from the well-established prototype except in the direction of idealization: characteristic examples include the charming, grandfatherly figure of President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) in the TV series The West Wing (1999–2006), or such improbable superheroes as President Marshall (played by Harrison Ford) in the thriller Air Force One (1997), who single-handedly defeats terrorists hijacking his plane, and President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman) in the science fiction movie Independence Day (1996), who jumps into a fighter plane to personally defend his country against the evil aliens. Comedies tend to present more fallible figures like the widowed President Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995), who succumbs to the charms of a pretty female lobbyist but emerges triumphant when he does not betray her love out of political expediency. Perhaps the one notable deviation from the idealized fictional image of the president (disregarding biopics on historical presidents such as Oliver Stone’s Nixon [1995] or W. [2008]) is the comedy Dave (1993), in which President Mitchell (played by Kevin Kline) suffers a stroke while in bed with a White House staffer and falls into a coma, and his evil chief of staff replaces him with a naïve look-alike. This story foregrounds another unstated but very powerful moral expectation against the nation’s president: he must be (or at least should present a credible public image of) a faithful husband and an impeccable family man. The scandal and the ultimate impeachment of President Bill Clinton following the public exposition of his sexual affair with a White House intern in 1998 spectacularly illustrated both the high moral claims on the nation’s leader well beyond his statesmanship and the ruthless political exploitation of such moral lapses by the political opposition.

The predominant fictional representation of the president has been challenged only by a handful of mainstream movies, typically fantastic thrillers that increased the alienating effect of the improbable plot by featuring an African-American President. The first appearance of an African-American president character was in a European fantastic blockbuster The Fifth Element released in 1997, produced by a French studio but featuring mostly British and American actors. The story takes place in the 23rd century with a united interplanetary government called the Federation, the president of which is an African-American character on Earth called Lindberg. While the Federation can be interpreted as an equivalent of the United States, the image of its president, played by former professional wrestler Tom Lister with his trademark appearance, voice, and style, diverges emphatically from the ‘typical’ behavioral patterns expected from presidents on screen, presenting a satirical take on fictitious representations of American leaders. The first major Hollywood movie to feature an African-American President was the SF disaster flick Deep Impact in 1998, in which Morgan Freeman played President Tom Beck with his customary reassuring, calm presence, in a roughly contemporary setting. Nonetheless, his appearance may carry a – not necessarily unconscious – ironic message that the authors of the screenplay could imagine a black president only in the context of an impending catastrophe that threatens with the end of the world as we know it. The same pattern was repeated in the more recent disaster movie 2012, in which African-American President Wilson (played by Danny Glover) sacrifices himself to demonstrate his solidarity with the millions of victims of the destroyed USA. These movies seem to associate an African-American president with some sort of extreme calamity that is a far cry from ordinary state of affairs.

The normative fictional image of the American president was subverted most powerfully and effectively by the TV series 24, whose first season was launched in November 2001, two months after 9/11. The first season is in certain ways a traditional thriller set in Los Angeles featuring a government anti-terrorist agent, Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who is forced into an extremely dangerous situation, trying to defend his wife and daughter from unknown foes while struggling to save the life of a popular African-American presidential candidate, Senator David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysbert). But the series also presented radical innovations in its script. The whole series takes place during 24 hours, with events in each episode happening during exactly 60 minutes (the actual length of each episode is only about 40 minutes to allow for commercial breaks), and parallel developments are recurrently shown on a four-way split-screen with a digital clock ominously counting time. This means that all the adventure, action, and thrill is packed into one endlessly long day for protagonist Jack Bauer. This unprecedentedly tight time frame gives the series a breathless intensity, while tension is increased further by the scriptwriters’ tendency to deliberately defeat audience expectations and challenge the taboos of prime-time television. The initial crisis (an assassination attempt on Palmer’s life, to be carried out by Bauer under duress) turns out to be just a cover-up for a totally different kind of master plan; characters repeatedly prove to be different from their initial persona; close friends are revealed as lethal enemies; central characters lose their life unexpectedly. The series works hard to upset the expected narrative patterns of crime thrillers, and repeatedly shatters the cliché of catharsis that follows a successful rescue effort on behalf of the hero. All this made up for a riveting and action-packed series which immediately won over the audience and critics alike. One critic described it in 2003 as “one of the most daring and exciting television series I’ve ever seen” (Cracknell). In 2007, well past its prime, with its 6th season on air, 24 still had about 15 million viewers each week, and millions more bought the DVD editions (Mayer). When the show ended with its 8th season in May 2010, critic Aaron Aradillas dubbed it “one of the most stylistically fresh and politically controversial programs in broadcast TV history” and he added that “If you’re looking for a series to remind you what it felt like to be alive and American in the 2000s, 24 is the show to beat” (Aradillas, Pt 1).

From the viewpoint of the current essay, 24 becomes relevant from Season 2, aired in 2002–2003, which was the first season focusing on a true national security emergency. The similarity to actual events is unmistakable: a nuclear device is set to be detonated on US soil by Middle Eastern terrorists. Jack Bauer of course returns as the indefatigable anti-terrorist agent, while former presidential candidate David Palmer appears now as the president of the United States. The show presents this development in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, but any perceptive viewer should notice the significance of the change. While the story of Season 1 remains within the conventional bounds of fictional ‘realism’ (a black Senator and presidential candidate was certainly not beyond plausibility in 2001, and an attempt on his life evoked memories of national trauma following the assassination of Martin Luther King), with Season 2 and afterward, the show slid into an entirely different genre: it developed into an alternate history. While in real life the president of the US was called George W. Bush, who by then revealed a clear intention to target Iraq for its alleged support of Islamic terrorism, in the alternate reality of the show there was an African-American president whose foreign policy reflexes and attitudes showed more similarity to Bill Clinton, and thus contrasted and subverted the real-life politics of the Bush regime.

During the course of the season, it turns out that right-wing elements inside the US government have conspired to use the terrorist threat to provoke a retaliatory war against certain unnamed Middle Eastern countries. Since the evidence implicating the Middle Eastern nations appears to be conclusive, the President’s chief of staff, most of his cabinet as well as military generals pressure him to take immediate and massive retaliatory action against these countries. Jack, however, investigates clues that suggest the key evidence (a recording of a telephone conversation between a terrorist and a political leader) has been forged in order to drag the USA into a war. Palmer is inclined to believe Jack and orders a halt on the air strike. This leads to one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire show in Episode 21, when his own Vice President and cabinet conspire to have him relieved from his office based on the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, citing his supposed disability “to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

The extensive battle of words between Palmer and his Vice President sharply delineates his foreign political profile, while contrasting it spectacularly with his real-life counterpart. The episode aired on April 29, 2003, less than three months after Secretary of State Colin Powell made a key appearance at the UN Security Council on February 5, presenting evidence on Iraq’s biological WMD program in an attempt to justify the impending invasion of the country (Powell). The invasion was launched on March 20, 2003, and Bagdad fell on April 9, merely three weeks before the episode under discussion went into program. The invasion forces, however, never found any hard evidence of the biological WMD program the existence of which Colin Powell reiterated at the Security Council, and subsequently it turned out that most of the ‘evidence’ was made up by the CIA on the basis of stories by Iraqi dissidents of dubious integrity (Pleitgen).

Thus, in this episode the audience is confronted with a dovish (and, by the way, African-American) President who is threatened with removal from his office by a hawkish (and, by the way, white) Vice-President in order to pave the way for a war in the Middle East based on false evidence. In real life, a hawkish (and, by the way, white) President and his Cabinet forced a dovish (and, by the way, African-American) Secretary of State to present the supposed hard evidence – subsequently proved to be false – justifying the invasion of a Middle Eastern country. Even though the falseness of the presented evidence was not yet proven at the time, UN weapons inspectors already expressed their doubts concerning the claims of the US government. The edge of the show’s criticism was obviously directed against real-life warmongers, who – at least in the fictional alternative history – are ultimately revealed to be manipulated by unscrupulous business interests bent on making gigantic profits on war. As a result, David Palmer emerged as the show’s other most positive hero next to Jack Bauer, presented as a judicious and wise leader not prone to follow his gut instincts to take revenge or risk the life of US soldiers based on spurious evidence. Thanks to Jack’s steely determination and willingness to risk everything to fulfill his mission, the conspiracy is ultimately exposed and Palmer emerges victoriously from the political calamity. By the end of Season 2, President David Palmer has been firmly established as a superior moral authority, an honorable and genuine national leader, motivated by a deep sense of duty and devotion to his country, who does not shy away from making tough decisions in testing times – an almost ideal President.

Season 3 (aired in 2003–2004) significantly subverts this idealized image of Palmer. Now the audience see him in the second half of his term, preparing for the campaign for his reelection. Following the widespread conspiracy in his administration, he has become less trustful with people, choosing his own brother Wayne to be his chief of staff (the only real-life president who used a brother in a similar position of trust was John F. Kennedy). While another terrorist group provokes a different kind of national emergency (this time with a deadly virus), the president is sidetracked by Wayne who has had an illicit affair with the wife of a major financial supporter of Palmer’s campaign. The moneybag Alan Milliken – who also happens to be black – asks Palmer to fire his brother, and when Palmer refuses, he threatens to withdraw his support in the upcoming campaign. Palmer, against his better judgment, employs his estranged wife Sherry to try and dig up compromising information on Milliken, but her reckless efforts to save Palmer result in both Milliken’s and her own death. Palmer’s presidential rival blackmails him to reveal his indirect involvement in Milliken’s death unless he withdraws from the race. Palmer accepts his responsibility and steps out of politics.

So, Season 3 presents the tragic story of a great president who is ultimately ruined by his own family – his brother and his ex-wife. Palmer is dragged down to earth in this season, revealed to be a fallible man with human weaknesses (like trying to employ dirty methods for political survival), but his single moral failure leads to his downfall. In Melissa Crawley’s words,

Over the course of the series, he has been characterized as a betrayed husband, friend, brother and boss who nevertheless maintains an inherent goodness. Similar to The West Wing‘s President Bartlet, the fictional President Palmer is a flawed but admirable man who represents noble presidential traits. (55)

The character of David Palmer has made such a strong impression on the audience that, even though Season 4 (2005) is launched with a new president at the helm (the same person who forced Palmer to retire from politics), after Air Force One is shot down by terrorists with the president on board, Palmer reappears in the last quarter of the season to help the hapless former Vice President, Charles Logan, handle the current terror crisis. His calm, firm, and wise demeanor presents a stark contrast to the extreme emotional and moral zigzags performed by Logan, ranging from mindless panic in the face of the impending disaster to political cowardice, petty vindictiveness, and egotistic vanity when he appropriates the successful aversion of the threat all to himself, discarding both Bauer and Palmer, the genuine heroes of the day. With Logan, who is a white man, the scriptwriters invented the perfect moral counterpart of Palmer: an untalented, dubious, and unscrupulous figure who is willing to do anything for personal gain and political survival, the inverted image of the ideal president. The moral contrast between the two presidential characters is amplified in Season 5 (2006), which opens with Palmer’s assassination – the trigger of the entire plot for that season. Jack, who feels compelled to step in and find the perpetrators of the murder, ultimately uncovers a shady plot involving President Logan himself, who had knowledge about the assassination. The upset moral universe is eventually restored when in the final episode Jack manages to cajole an unintended confession out of Logan and records it, providing the crucial evidence to remove him from the presidency. As a result, Logan’s figure assumes distinct Nixonesque features, evolving from a dishonest politician to a presidential criminal, while the martyrdom of David Palmer – even though he was no longer in office, working on his memoirs with the help of his brother Wayne – inevitably evokes the memory of two traumatic events of the recent past: the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. His ultimate fate, on the other hand, may be seen as an ambiguous commentary on the state of American politics in general, suggesting that such principled and upright characters as Palmer have no place in the corrupt moral universe of the American government.

All in all, Palmer’s character runs through five seasons, “the first African American president on television in a three-dimensional role” (quoted Rusch 157), as actor Dennis Haysbert said about his own character. But the truly remarkable achievement was how the series managed to showcase Palmer without foregrounding his race. From Season 2, Palmer’s race never enters the story, and the fact that he is the president of the United States is treated in such a matter-of-fact way as if he was white. As a contemporary New York Times article remarked about Season 2, “David Palmer is the first black president of the United States, but no one seems to notice” (quoted Rusch 165). Author Kristin Kathryn Rusch puts it in another way: “For three seasons (and part of a fourth), Americans watched as a capable person ran the United States. A capable person who was male and from the Northeast. A person who also happened to be African American” (165). Rusch points out that Palmer essentially did not differ from the many larger-than-life fictional presidents before him except in one but, in the context of American politics, very significant aspect: his race.

When Obama surfaced as a serious presidential candidate during 2007, the impressive memory of David Palmer was still very strong in the mind of the television-viewing audience, while Season 6 (2007) of the show was featuring his younger brother Wayne as the second African-American inhabitant of the White House – while in real life this was still widely considered impossible. Lucia Bozzola, in a truly prophetic but probably little-known article, predicted that the potential success of Obama may well be assisted by what she termed the “Palmer Effect” and defined the following way:

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 has made the presence of an African American president not only normal, but also desirable. … Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer is smart, charismatic, informed, judicious and all of those other things our current commander in chief is not.

Obama, while not physically similar to President Palmer, also embodied some key contrasts to the earlier generation of African-American politicians, which may have contributed to his acceptance among middle-class white voters. He was not a veteran of the civil rights movement as for instance Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, two former presidential primary candidates, were; he did not routinely use religious imagery in his public speeches and did not foreground his own personal faith; he did not speak with a characteristic African-American accent; he did not focus on issues that were the primary concern of black voters; his public image showed more similarities to a calm and collected college professor than a passionately arguing preacher. In short, he diverged sharply from the stereotypical image of the African-American politician that many whites harbor, based on King and Jackson, the two most visible black public figures of the last fifty years. This is largely due to his family background, since his Kenyan father left the family and moved back to his homeland when young Barack was only two years old, and he grew up with his white mother and grandparents, so he had no direct experience of African-American culture before his adulthood (Obama 5). While the series reveals little about the family background of David Palmer, the lack of any distinctive emphasis on his race suggests a similar conclusion: that he is a person who is fully integrated with the culture of American politics regarding his language, his style, and his public image, a culture determined by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition. Apart from his one signature difference – his race – he certainly does not represent a novel type of political figure, an unconventional alternative to politics as usual, but rather an improved version of the traditional ideal, somewhat reminiscent of John Kennedy whose political culture and public views were not particularly affected by his own signature difference, his Catholic faith. Whether that counts as a merit or deficiency is a matter of opinion: diehard supporters of the African-American racial agenda could have branded Palmer a ‘bleached’ politician who traded in his roots for a place at the table of the national political elite. Or, with equal justification, he could be characterized as a representative of a post-racial America, whose views and moral character are no longer determined by his racial background and experience. Obama, in several ways an unusual African-American politician whose personal appeal reached way beyond racial barriers and created a bond with large groups of white voters, faces a similar challenge: as the very first black President in American history, he simply cannot afford to end up as an unsuccessful or mediocre national leader.

Although it is very difficult if not impossible to prove such an intuition beyond all reasonable doubt, I am convinced that Obama owed at least some of his popular appeal during his rapid rise to success in the 2008 Presidential race to his fictional predecessor, David Palmer. Dennis Haysbert shares the same view about the character he impersonated, as he revealed in an interview given in January 2008: “as far as the public is concerned, it did open up their minds and their hearts a little bit to the notion that if the right man came along … that a black man could be president of the United States” (Vernon). For a fleeting historical moment, on election night on November 4 2008, life truly seemed to imitate art in the sense of Oscar Wilde. Palmer’s career, however, has ultimately come to a tragic end, and the fiction offers the audience no clues as to whether his personal charisma and admirable qualities have culminated in a successful presidential term. It remains to be seen whether President Obama will leave behind a heritage worthy of his pioneering role in the history of the American presidency.


Works Cited

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