2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Casting a Black President


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Joel Stein,
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 jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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