Special to the Los Angeles Times
1/11/08 L.A. Times (Bus. Sec.)
A lot of liberals say they're not supporting Barack
Obama in the primaries because a black can't carry the
South in the general election -- which is a liberal's
clever way of saying that he won't vote for a black
person. But, it seems, they're wrong. Because while Iowa
and New Hampshire aren't technically in the South, they
are full of hicks, which is what rich liberals actually
mean when they refer to "the South." You have to live
among rich liberals to understand what they're saying.
You'll never believe what they mean by "middle class."
They mean themselves.
America is ready for a black president because we've
seen them before. Black presidents, in fact, have been
our awesomest presidents ever: Morgan Freeman in "Deep
Impact" and Dennis Haysbert in "24." And their approval
ratings -- box office grosses and Nielsen ratings, the
only approval that matters in the U.S. -- have been
huge. The Freeman and Haysbert administrations, which
endured Carter-level challenges such as a comet headed
toward Earth and working with Kiefer Sutherland, have
specifically prepared us for Obama. Like him, they
confront without being confrontational. They're calm,
earnest, utterly decent and way, way cooler than white
presidents -- which is what I'm sure Joe Biden was
trying to say when he called Obama "articulate" and
"clean." If only I had translated for him sooner.
If there is a choice between winning a culture war or a
political war, take the cultural one. Sure, the blunt
force of the law can make something happen quickly --
unless the law equivocates to make only three-fifths of
something happen, or to just not ask and not tell -- but
culture affects how people think, which is how real
change occurs. You can only send the 101st Airborne
Division to Little Rock, Ark., so many times, but Norman
Lear can make people see the absurdity of racism every
week. "Will & Grace" did as much for gay rights as
Stonewall, although less amusingly.
The creators of "24" were totally misguided in their
reasoning for casting a black presidential candidate.
They thought the threat of his assassination would up
the stakes because it might spark a race war. But
viewers didn't care about his race. Haysbert knew by
Season 2 that America was ready to elect a black
president because white people would stop him on the
street to say they wished he were the real president.
Obama is strikingly similar to Haysbert's character,
President David Palmer: Both were senators, both
campaigned in their mid-40s and both deliver JFK-style
speeches in a cool, jazz baritone. "I think we both have
a similar approach to who and what we believe the
president is. Barack doesn't get angry. He's pretty
level. That's how I portrayed President Palmer: as a man
with control over his emotions and great intelligence,"
Haysbert says. In fact, it's weird to imagine the two of
them in the same room, as they were during a small
fundraiser at which Obama pointed him out and said, "I
see we have a former president in the room." Haysbert
also chartered a helicopter after a shoot for his new
show, "The Unit," to make it to an Obama fundraiser at
Oprah Winfrey's house near Santa Barbara, Calif. "That
was not cheap. You add the price of the ticket to get
in, that's a significant endorsement." Each one of those
Allstate ads was an Allstate ad for hope.
Freeman, another Obama campaign contributor, was born in
1937 and grew up in Mississippi, never thinking we could
possibly have a black president. But after 1998's "Deep
Impact," Freeman says, white people told him, too, that
they wished he were really president. "If you think of
these roles and how the country reacted, you kind of get
the notion that perhaps they could handle it," he says.
In fact, he started to sense that in 1984 -- when Jesse
Jackson sought the Democratic nomination, and, more
important, when Bill Cosby's sitcom made him the highest
paid entertainer in the country -- that we'd one day
have a black president. Maybe one similar to the one he
portrayed. "It remains to be seen if Barack Obama would
be the same kind of president as Bob
whatever-his-name-was," Freeman says.
It's not completely insane for America to have tested
out, in fiction, the idea of a black commander in chief.
Because, really, all presidents are fictional
characters. Sure, the president has very tangible
effects on some people: soldiers, Iraqis, welfare
recipients, guys facing jail named Scooter.
But for the rest of us, the president primarily
influences how we feel about the country. We love Ronald
Reagan not just for helping end the Cold War but for
smiling like a used car salesman and convincing us that
morning had broken. Haysbert, Freeman and Obama can do
that without even smiling.
If you think about it, Obama wouldn't stand a chance if
Geena Davis had been a little more compelling in
"Commander in Chief."
Stein is a columnist for the Times.<
E-mail Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org