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Prime-time presidents: It's wit versus grit

November 25, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV has a long history of depicting U.S. presidents, with Sam Waterston's soulful Abe Lincoln in 1988 standing head and stovepipe hat above them all, and assembly lines of clay-duck John F. Kennedys reminding us how bad screen biographies can be.

When it came to low burlesque, though, nothing beat "An American President," a PBS series in 2000 whose exotic choices to speak the words of first executives may have been the worst concept in the annals of documentarydom.

Former Sen. Bob Dole as Herbert Hoover? Muttering radio jokester Don Imus as Andrew Johnson? Democratic Party hit man James Carville as Andrew Jackson? When that master thespian Carville woodenly recited, "My reputation is dearer to me than life," it brought to mind a line that Jack Benny made his signature:

"Now cut that out!"

Prime time's most famous presidents these days are fictional. Josiah Bartlet of NBC's "The West Wing" has just been reelected, and David Palmer is a year into his first term on Fox's tumultuous "24."

Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is a short, white, folksy intellectual; Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), tall, black and regal. Bartlet is effusive, Palmer stony. Bartlet has shrewd eyes and misses nothing (because he's a liberal Democrat, no doubt), Palmer (a Democrat whose philosophies are not precisely defined) is a bit of a thickhead.

Their White Houses, too, are as different as, well, white and black. Bartlet's is as funny as it is thoughtful, Palmer's relentlessly grave.

Bartlet not only has health problems but this season is also facing another crush of domestic challenges and global crises, and already has a Middle East assassination under his belt. Just last Wednesday, moreover, he adroitly handled a secret request from a militant Iranian leader to allow his 15-year-old son to enter the U.S. for life-saving surgery. After Bartlet reluctantly said yes, the ayatollah infuriated him by still issuing a bitter harangue against the U.S. to assuage Iranian hard-liners at home.

That's mild, however, compared with the minefield facing Palmer in a series whose entire season spans just 24 hours in the lives of its characters.

At 8 a.m. he was summoned from a fishing vacation with his son and informed that unnamed terrorists were planning that day to set off a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles that would cause up to 2.5-million casualties.

It will be noon when Episode 5 opens Tuesday with Palmer still trying to keep the looming nuclear threat secret, and still shaken by news that a smaller bomb blew apart the L.A. branch of the government's Counter Terrorist Unit and killed or injured scores of its staff.

What's a president to do?

For starters, Palmer immediately put on ice a nosy newspaperman who would have panicked the city by reporting the nuclear device's existence. Bartlet the libertarian probably wouldn't have done that.

In Bartlet's case, also, we have a president who rarely makes major decisions without consulting his large cadre of smart loyalists, and his wife also delivers advice.

But what is it with poor Palmer, who appears almost isolated? Will someone please find this president a staff?

He suffered major betrayals last season, one by his chief political advisor on the eve of the election, another by his ruthless wife (they're now divorced). The final moments of last week's hour found him firing National Security Agency honcho Eric Rayburn (Timothy Carhart), who had blocked presidential aide Lynne Kresge (Michelle Forbes) from telling him of the CTU bomb threat in time to order the place evacuated.

Why would Rayburn do that? It's all very mysterious, although his whole tone and demeanor scream hidden agenda. Why, also, did Kresge refrain from ratting on Rayburn to Palmer, even though she's presented as the president's closest aide (his chief of staff has yet to become a factor)?

Instead, Palmer had to ferret out this deception himself, perceiving belatedly what viewers surely knew all along (duh): that Rayburn was a treacherous slug. Shifty eyes were the giveaway.

It would go differently in the Bartlet White House, where staff fidelity to the president is a religion. Along with incessant repartee. Here's a White House for Noel Coward.

If Bartlet learned of a terrorist plot to obliterate L.A., the response would be immediate-- motion. You'd see scene after scene of him and his staff bantering wittily while striding briskly through the White House's West Wing as a prelude to saving L.A.'s bacon. Then they'd walk and be clever some more, because this is the wittiest, most mobile White House crowd in history.

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