As the election season explodes upon us, it’s fascinating to see a television character drive real events. But there it is, a fictional black president, now departed from a series, who paves the way for a real one. I’m not sure if presidential candidate Barack Obama is a fan of the actor Dennis Haysbert, but he should be. Regardless, Obama owes Haysbert a debt of gratitude for making the idea of a black president more possible and acceptable to the American people — or at least to the millions of viewers of 24.
Haysbert is now the lead actor of CBS’s The Unit — making him one of network TV’s rare lead African-American actors in a prime-time show (if it wasn’t for the CW, it would be just him and 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan now that you can only watch Taye Digg’s Daybreak on ABC’s Web site). But as 24’s President Palmer, heinspired confidence and commander-in-chief envy. Try to strike up a conversation while sitting next to him in your kids’ preschool play yard, though, and you’ll come to appreciate Haysbert as a formidable man to annoy. Even before his success with 24, and before I had any idea he was an actor, I can say with certainty that he projected a kind of gravitas and physical presence that Dick Cheney would find instructive and enviable. In 24, Haysbert’s President Palmer often had to agonize over horrible decisions of state while thwarting the aspirations of his Machiavellian wife, but with his intelligence and humanity we trusted him to do the right thing. Sure, it’s just Haysbert’s exceptional acting, and the show’s fine writing, but fantasy is important, especially when fantasy contrasts so brilliantly with the sad reality of the dull-witted “decider” of a president we now have.
Obama is a talented man, and a charismatic candidate, and I would be happy if he became our next president, but if Haysbert’s President Palmer were running against him, I suspect that the fictional candidatewould sweep all 50 states.