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Eugene Linden Headshot


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If ever there was a year for a Democratic president to be elected, this was it - a war without end, imploding economy, the most unpopular incumbent in living memory, etc. --but a black Democrat? Even given the revulsion over the mess the GOP has created, it's still hard to imagine any other prominent black politician winning the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Jesse Jackson? Charles Rangel? Maxine Waters?

Obama has more in common with someone like Colin Powell than he does with Al Sharpton. Like Powell, he came up through the establishment, not the inner city. Obama never had to have a photo-op with Tawana Brawley or pay lip service to the notion of reparations for slavery, or do any of the things that might pander to resentments in the black community, but at the price of completely alienating white and Hispanic voters. Yes, he attended a church where the reverend Wright on occasion inveighed against America, but the association never stuck, possibly because the contrast between Wright's demagoguery and Obama's thoughtful style only underscored that Obama was not of that school of politics. Rather, he's a charismatic, eloquent, and highly intelligent politician who happens to have a dark skin.

Still, that probably wouldn't have been sufficient to get him elected in 2000 or even 2004 (had he been old enough). Americans needed a narrative that would help prepare the public for a different skin color in the White House. There have been articles in the press about the parallels between Obama's campaign and the story line of the last season of "The West Wing" where a Hispanic candidate played by Jimmy Smits ascends to the White House. The real narrative that made the prospect of a black president plausible, however, came not from the left, but more likely from the right, from the pro-torture, militaristic, and wildly popular television series "24."

In President Palmer, Americans got to see Dennis Haysbert play the role of a strong, competent, intelligent, even inspiring leader, dealing with the most dire crises that the show's paranoid, right-wing creators could dream up. President Palmer did not deal with these crises as a black president, but as a president. His advisors didn't deal with him as a black politician, but as a president. Palmer's skin color was all but irrelevant to the high-tension story line.

The show took for granted that a black man could function in the land's highest office, and I suspect that this low-key, almost subliminal message was far more effective than the preachy, self-conscious stereotypes that the entertainment industry seems to prefer when dealing with racial themes for mass culture. "24" offered a template for what we might want in any president, black or white, and Barack Obama fit that template perfectly. So for millions of "24" fans, Barack Obama's candidacy had a familiar reassuring aura. It's unknowable how much that helped, but it sure didn't hurt.