The August 2007 issue of Esquire featured a cocksure John Edwards next to the cover line: CAN A WHITE MAN STILL BE ELECTED PRESIDENT? At the time—say, before he dropped out last week—the question was revisionist sarcasm. But in the alternate reality of the hit drama "24," the question would be downright apropos. When the show premiered in 2001, the plot centered on the country's first viable black presidential contender, Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), and the efforts of dauntless counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer(Kiefer Sutherland) to fend off assassins. By the second season, Palmer had taken office, where he remained through the following season. In season six, the show had an echo of Robert F. Kennedy in the form of Wayne Palmer (D. B. Woodside), David Palmer's younger brother, who is elected as the second black president following David's assassination. The seventh season had its scheduled Jan. 13 premiere derailed by the Hollywood writers' strike, but when it finally bows, Tony winner Cherry Jones will play Allison Taylor, the franchise's first female president. In fact, the show's only white male president to be featured as a regular cast member was the duplicitous President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), whose complicity in the death of David Palmer couldn't have been good for his approval ratings.
But "24" is fiction—or at least it was. This year, reality is finally catching up with Hollywood. Now that the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are forcing us to examine feelings about race, gender and power, there's much insight to be gained from studying their fictional ancestors. After all, the part of the president of the United States is one of the few that could always be cast as a white male, so any time a woman or a person of color has been put into that role, it was done purposefully. How have our depictions of black and female presidents reflected our feelings about having one? How do they shape our current opinions and comfort levels? And should Obama or Clinton ascend to the presidency, how will the depictions change once we've gone from "what if" to "what now?"
The narrative possibilities of a black or female president have been exploited since the time when such a premise would have been considered fantasy—or, to some, a nightmare. The first African-American to serve the role in the movies was James Earl Jones—he's got the voice for it—in 1972's "The Man," an adaptation of a 1968 Irving Wallace novel. Jones plays Douglass Dilman, the president pro tempore of the Senate who jumps the succession line after an almost comic string of tragedies: the president and Speaker of the House are killed when the ceiling of a German palace collapses on them, and the vice president is too ill to take over. When Dilman assumes office, he becomes the target of racially motivated attacks, both on his life and on his job. The first female presidency in film came earlier, but was no more flattering. In 1964's "Kisses for My President," Polly Bergen plays President Leslie McCloud, who is propelled into office by a gale force of female voters. But the film is more about her husband, Thad (Fred MacMurray), and his awkward attempts at being First Husband. Despite being decades ahead of reality, the essence of these films was very much of their time—fearmongering and reactionary. Each film spends a disproportionate amount of time on the discomfort of racist whites and macho men. The function of the films seems to be, at the height of the women's and civil-rights movements, to remind frightened white men that despite the progress and possibilities, the glass ceiling was firmly intact.
Since those first fumbling attempts, there have been other intermittent efforts to depict these characters: in film, Chris Rock's "Head of State" (tag line: "The only thing white is the house"); on television, a recurring female president in "Prison Break." But the characters that made the most impact were David Palmer of "24" and Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) of "Commander in Chief." Their shows were the first serialized dramas to attempt this race- and gender-specific casting, providing a weekly opportunity to sell America on the concept—and we do mean sell. "We absolutely went into this with the agenda of making America comfortable with the idea of a female president," says "Commander" creator Rod Lurie, who had previously written and directed 2000's "The Contender," about the brutal confirmation of a female vice president.
It may sound grandiose for Lurie to take partial credit for helping voters warm to Clinton, but pop culture often eases public acceptance of social issues. Ellen DeGeneres's announcing her sexuality via her sitcom had an impact on the way we view gays and lesbians. "The Jeffersons" normalized the concept of interracial marriage. The effect Haysbert's performance has had on our impression of Obama might be even more dramatic, since Obama shares so much with President Palmer. Palmer was suave and soigné, polite to a fault, blessed with a gift for rhetoric and a buttery baritone with which to present it. "As far as the public is concerned [the character] 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," says Haysbert, an active Obama supporter. And Palmer's campaign and presidency were conspicuously race-free, a tone Obama has strived for, if not always achieved. The only time Palmer's race is addressed on "24," it's a red herring, where it is revealed that the assassination attempts he thought were racially motivated were actually retribution for a botched military operation he authorized.
The world of "Commander in Chief" was not nearly so progressive, and the show's trajectory provides a glimpse into the precarious work of shaping the image of an unlikely president. Vice President Allen assumes the presidency after President Teddy Bridges (Will Lyman) dies of a brain aneurysm. The show was the most-watched of the 2005 fall season, delivering huge audiences of female viewers. But after the show's seventh episode, Lurie was fired, reportedly due to script delays, and replaced by Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue"). In Bochco's retooling, the male characters came to the fore. "She was always turning to her husband or to a man for advice or approval, so the show was beginning to become not about why we should have a female president, but why we should not have one," Lurie says. "I don't know if I can call myself a feminist, but I know that Bochco is not." (Bochco declined to comment for this article.) The show went from groundbreaking incumbent to lame duck—canceled after one season. "I hate that it turned out the way it did, because I might not ever have a chance to work on something as important," Lurie says.
Then again, his work is done—a woman is a front runner for the White House. It will be interesting to see how that scenario affects the next generation of fictional presidents, starting with this season on "24." The producers have installed their own cone of silence over the new season (they declined to comment during the writers' strike), but chances are, President Taylor, like President Allen, will be stereotypically feminine, pretty, empathic and family-oriented, but also extremely knowledgeable and tough on defense issues, just as President Palmer was pristine, eloquent and polite. In other words, Taylor will be yet another idealized version of a nonwhite-male president, the kind we'd hope would take office and vanquish the remaining vestiges of racial and gender prejudice. But we don't live in these small-screen utopias. Our candidates, regardless of race and gender, have skeletons. Real politicians screw up. They contradict themselves. Hollywood is building unreasonable expectations for our real-life candidates—as well as reserving the juiciest parts for white actors. When we have fictional black and female presidents who are incompetent and evil and make great big messes, it'll be proof that we've arrived at a place where we can judge individuals on their merits. Then the answer to the question "Can a white man still be elected president?" will be "Of course, but so can anybody else."