Part 4C: David Palmer and the Best TV Presidents Had To Offer
As important as the story of Jack Bauer was to 24, it’s worth noting that it would have been nothing without the political dynamics. More than any other series in the post-9/11 world, this series gave some of the most memorable and gripping portrayals of Presidential politics in the 21st Century.
Of course how many Presidents served during the course of 24 is a question not even the series can answer with accuracy. Perhaps the reason America knows so much about the 25th Amendment is because of how 24 used it throughout its run — frankly, to the point of excess. The first time it was used in Day 2, it was an extremely powerful moment; by the time it was used three separate times in Day 6, even the most die hard fan of the series was thinking the framers of the amendment had never thought it could be a tired plot device. As a result, its possible as many eight Presidents served during the show’s run — and that’s not counting Die Another Day. But for the focus of this article, I will center it on what I’m relatively certain fans agree are the most memorable ones. One ranks as one of the greatest Presidents in pop culture history; the other is almost certainly one of the worst, but for sheer drama, both gave the series — and TV as a whole — its finest moments.
The focus of Day 1 was the assassination attempt on David Palmer. Before we get there, a little backstory on Dennis Haysbert who is probably more unfortunately known these days as the face — and voice — of Allstate.Haysbert was an exceptional actor well before he got cast on 24. It’s hard to imagine this is the same actor who played Pedro Serrano in the brilliant comedy Major League when he was much younger. And I actually knew who he was even before 24 aired. One of my favorite one season series was CBS’ Now & Again, a sci-fi- action -comedy series that was impossible to describe — the Pilot begins with John Goodman getting pushed off a subway platform in a slow-mo choreographed scene and wakes up in the next ten minutes in Eric Close’s body and it just gets weirder from there. Haysbert played the NSA scientist-handler of Close’s character and actually demonstrated a fair amount of wit and sarcasm that he almost never got to use on 24. It was a brilliant series, and one that I’ve never really gotten over it being cancelled. (Though considering how much success both Haysbert and Close would enjoy afterwards in television because of the cancellation, one can hardly say it didn’t work out.)
David Palmer spends most of Day 1 dealing with a story that is about to come out about a story that’s about to be published about his son murdering the man who raped his sister several years ago. The series takes place on Super Tuesday, so it’s pretty clear this will end his political career. In the midst of this, he finds himself attacked on every front, most notably the fact that he is a target for an assassination that seems to be done by Jack Bauer.
There are two key elements to the day that have to be discussed to truly understand David Palmer’s character. The first comes when, after learning Jack’s role it becomes clear he knows the name — two years earlier Jack led an operation to kill a Serbian warlord that led to the death of his entire team. He then goes to CTU where Jack is being held for everything he’s already done and pretty much cuts through the red tape to see him. For the first time, Palmer and Jack are in the same room and its one of the great scenes in the series’ history as they very quickly realize that both of them are on somebody’s list. They make the connections they need to, and Palmer gets Jack reinstated for the rest of the day. This is the foundation of a friendship that will last until Palmer’s death — and beyond. The key moment comes when Palmer says: “I misjudged you,” and offers his hand to Jack. The two shake.
And of course, you can’t discuss David Palmer without bringing up his wife, Sherry, masterfully played by Penny Johnson Jerald. They appear to have the perfect marriage, but as the scandal begins to unfold Sherry makes it very clear it is more important they get to the White House then the truth be told. It’s actually something of a stretch to believe that a marriage could implode over the course of a day, but the longer we observe Sherry, we get the very clear picture that the roots have been there all along — David was just too blind to see it.
David ultimately does tell the truth about the cover-up and it ends up with him sweeping Super Tuesday, but perhaps the most meaningful moment comes when David decides in the final episode of Day 1 to divorce Sherry despite all the potential fallout. And there will be a lot of that.
I suppose this should be the part of the story where I have to mention that David Palmer was an African-American and therefore you might see the roots between Hays Bert’s portrayal and the election Barack Obama six years later. While I’ll admit that it may have played a role in people being able to accept the idea of a black President, I don’t think this is a case of correlation equaling causation. The main reason is, the series never made as much a point of this. In fact, Palmer says so directly when he learns the nature of the plot: “This has nothing to do with me running for President…or me being black.” That being said, the overall brilliant ethics and morals of Palmer and how he was willing to put the good of the country well before that of his own makes him a model portrayal. And I think the reason he resonates with me more than Jed Bartlet in The West Wing is that Palmer mixed his idealism with realpolitik in a way I just can’t ever say Bartlet doing.
During Season 2, David Palmer is suspicious of the Head of The NSA hiding intelligence of him on a terrorist plot. He goes to one of his Secret Service agents who have experience with ‘enhanced interrogation’. He tells him very clear that what he’s about to do falls outside his charge and tells him he wants him to question Stanton. The agent asks: “If he resists, how far am I permitted to go?” Palmer essentially tells him to do what is necessary. Without hesitation. For the next hour, the agent tortures this government head. At one point Palmer walks in and asks him for information. When the man is still resistant, he turns to agent with one word: “Continue.” Immediately afterwards, the man breaks and provides details vital to every aspect of the plot.
The stories of David’s family would become less evident during his ‘term’ (Seasons 2 and 3 were spaced out so then when the third day took place, Palmer was running for reelection) but it was clear throughout the series about the loyalty of the friendships he had. Two in particular stand out: his friendship with Mike Novick, who ran his campaign and would become his chief of staff in Day 2. Mike was completely loyal to David throughout Day 1 and stayed faithful through much of Day 2 — which is why, when the Vice President had doubts about Palmer’s leadership and decided to invoke the 25th Amendment, Mike’s betrayal no doubt hurt the fans (especially me) immensely. Palmer didn’t hesitate at the end of Day 2; he would forgive his Vice President and Cabinet, but demands Mike resign. (The two would one day work it out; I’ll get to that later.)
The other and, in my opinion one of the great friendships in any TV show was that of Palmer and the head of his Secret Service detail Aaron Pierce. Glenn Morshower has had many brilliant roles throughout his career, but this is his crowning achievement. Pierce started out determined to protect the President more than anything (and he would actually form a friendship with Jack as well) but as the series went on, it was clear that the two men respected each other in a way beyond the most powerful man in the world and his bodyguard. No matter how small the role Pierce had in Day 2 and Day 3 whenever he and Palmer were in the same room, you could tell there was mutual respect in a way that I’d rarely seen on TV before or since.
Eventually Palmer’s character would face an ethical challenge he could not bring himself to overcome and choose not to stand for reelection. But as we would see, just because David Palmer was gone, his shadow would linger over the series for a very long time.