Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Barack Obama, the first second fifth African-American President of the United States ...

A week after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States - yeah, it's still pretty damn cool to consider that a black man is about to move into the White House, and that he isn't going to be the butler. But let's not fool ourselves that Obama's victory is that much of a breakthrough. Indeed, this country's history contains more than one example of a person of Negro persuasion making it to the highest office in the land. You just have to know where to look - in your local video store, of course.

1972: Before he was Darth Vader or the voice of CNN, James Earl Jones held the job of commander-in-chief in The Man, a heavy melodrama based on the Irving Wallace political thriller and adapted for the screen by no less than Rod Serling. Jones played Douglass Dillman, the President pro tempe of the Senate who reached the Oval Office when the sitting Chief Executive and Speaker of the House were killed in a building collapse in West Germany (!) and the dying Vice President declined the promotion on the grounds that America didn't need to bury another grand poobah in six months. Needless to say, this being the early '70s, the idea of Jones in the White House doesn't sit well with, oh, just about everyone surrounding him, and before long President Dillman has to contend not only with white racist politicians (including a Southern-dipped Burgess Meredith), but also with African-Americans, including his own radical daughter, who want him to take more of a stand on their issues. Nevertheless, Dillman navigates the treacherous waters with skill and aplomb, and of course has the best president voice ever. This movie actually isn't available on DVD as of now, but Obama's real-life ascendance to the top spot may speed things up in terms of home availability for The Man.

1998: Morgan Freeman was the next man to break the White House color barrier in Deep Impact, which also began a mini-tradition of America having a black president just in time to deal with The End of the World - in this case, a comet (co-discovered by future Hobbit Elijah Wood) on its way for a mid-air collision with the Earth. As Tom Beck, Freeman doesn't have much to do but stay stoic and keep convincing his constituents that "we will prevail," even if he doesn't really believe it. But he looks so good behind the Oval Office desk, you think about drafting him for the next election.

2001: The action-thriller series 24 debuts, and with it a new hero in David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the African-American senator from Maryland who is running for the highest office in the land during the inaugural season, which takes place entirely on the day before the California primary. Palmer manages to survive not only an attempted assassination, but also the machinations of his Lady MacBeth-like wife, Sherry, and by the second season Palmer was indeed the president, though his days didn't get much easier. Indeed, each of the first three seasons was devoted to Palmer dealing with threats against his life, his country and/or his administration. But Palmer himself always came out on top, or at least alive - that is, until the opening moments of Season Five, when he is shot through the throat while writing his memoirs, proving that a lot of good deeds do not go unpunished. Still, Palmer's death was the opening salvo in what was probably the best 24 season to date, so there's that.

2007: In a move that would make the Kennedy kids beam with pride, Palmer's brother Wayne (D.B. Woodside) assumed the reigns of power for 24's sixth season. Unfortunately for Wayne, though, things didn't get much easier for the sitting President - especially when he was blown up and seriously injured by a bomb in an inside job meant to frame an alleged Muslim terrorist. What's worse than nearly being killed by a would-be assassin? Watching Vice-President Powers Boothe ham it up as your square-jawed replacement.

And, yeah, while all of these instances of a black president are fiction, there are some who indeed feel that Obama is not the first of his ethnicity to become the main man of the U.S. There were rumors about Warren G. Harding, the 29th President, concerning his heritage that circulated during his successful 1920 run for the White House. Reports that Harding had a little color in his background were rebuffed by his campaign manager, who maintained that the candidate was of "the finest pioneer blood," and they were quickly forgotten, though there was no DNA test at the time to prove things one way or another. (Another celebrity of the age who had to deal with such rumors? Babe Ruth.) And, of course, there are those who say, with tongue embedded in cheek, that one William Jefferson Clinton, with his soulful style and empathy for the regular guy, was the true first black president - though I would assume that Bill will defer that title to the soon-to-be occupant.

No comments: