In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24‘s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?
It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.
Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes.
If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.