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A black president? Only on television

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

OK, cards on the table: The Rev. Al Sharpton has about as much chance of being elected president of the United States as Trent Lott has of becoming an honorary saint during Black History Month. Maybe in a parallel universe, but not here.

Jesse Jackson whetted our appetite for a credible black candidate for president in '84 and '88. Though he took himself out of the running for the Democratic nomination after two campaigns, it was clear that he could kick the door open, but he wasn't qualified by temperament or talent to walk through it to a historic victory.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's performance at the United Nations last week made blacks -- especially black Democrats -- wistful for what could've been. If only Secretary Powell wasn't one of them, he'd be the party's front-runner right now.

Truth be told, Powell would be both parties' front-runner up until Election Day when the reality of electing a president who happens to be black -- sorry, Bill Clinton -- would force all of those bigots who lied to pollsters about how liberal they were to cross party lines and vote for the other guy.

One of the great things about watching the spies/terrorists drama "24" every Tuesday night on Fox is imagining the back-story that would've led to President David Palmer winning an election over, presumably, a white opponent. What's more outlandish -- "24's" labyrinthine plot or the untold story of how a black candidate ascended to the highest office in the free world?

Blessed with an uncanny resemblance to the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, actor Dennis Haysbert exudes what can only be described as a soulful kind of presidential gravitas.

Haysbert plays President David Palmer with dignity and restraint, though if any black man ever had a reason to be paranoid, Palmer does. After surviving two assassination attempts on the eve of the California primary, a duplicitous ex-wife and a plot by members of his own White House staff to abet an act of nuclear terrorism in Los Angeles, President Palmer found himself uncharacteristically sliding into Henry Kissinger territory last week by authorizing a single act of torture for the sake of national security.

The level of moral complexity and intrigue Haysbert's character has to struggle with has got to be an actor's dream. For an hour every Tuesday night, viewers are invited to forget the crushing banality of American racism and imagine a world where skin color isn't an automatic barometer of presidential competence.

To his credit, Haysbert doesn't play Palmer like those one-dimensional presidents we're used to seeing in science fiction movies starring, say, Morgan Freeman presiding over a White House about to be flattened by an asteroid. Presidential candidates of all persuasions should take note of Palmer's decency and savvy and how it co-exists with his steely resolve to do the right thing.

If Palmer were in the real world of Democratic candidates jockeying for the presidential nomination in 2004, he would do everything in his power not to blend into the politically inoffensive background occupied by the party's moderates.

Given his intolerance for pretense and posturing of the Sharpton variety, candidate Palmer's strategy would be to become a stalking horse for the truth, even if it didn't get him many votes.

For example, Palmer would be out front denouncing Ashcroft's Justice Department for running roughshod over the Constitution in the wake of Sept. 11. The first so-called Patriot Act was bad enough, but recent stories about a follow-up piece of legislation that would give an already secretive administration even more power to engage in domestic surveillance without judicial review would be denounced for the threat to liberty that it is.

A character in "The Boondocks" quipped that if Al Sharpton would only cut his pompadour, he could be the Democratic presidential front-runner by August. But Al will need more than a haircut to impress the masses of Americans who aren't interested in throwing away their vote. There are too many Constitution-shredding barbarians at the gate to vote for any candidate who doesn't aspire to the ruthless honesty, brains and integrity of the fictional David Palmer.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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