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The Palmers: A Reflection of the Kennedys?

Senator Ted Kennedy passed away last week amid a media frenzy. What interested me most about the Senator’s passing was the revelation of how he spent his final days: watching Bond movies and the entire run of 24. There are worse entertainments to be found, to be sure. I wonder if he watched that hallmark American television show enthralled by the actions of Jack Bauer, or if he saw something more hidden away? He wouldn’t be the first to find parallels between the show’s African-American Presidential family and the illustrious Kennedy dynasty. Did he see a reflection of what might have been, in another life?

I like the flag. Patriotic touch.

I like the flag. Patriotic touch.

For those unfamiliar with the show, the initial three series focused primarily on two concurrent plotlines: Jack Bauer’s attempts to resolve any on-going crisis and the inner workings of the campaign and presidency of David Palmer. Palmer was portrayed as a young political hotshot, a man with the power of the people behind him. He was a herald of great change – “the first African American with a real shot at the White House” – and a Democrat.He decided not to seek renomination after his first term had elapsed, and was killed by an assassin’s bullet a few years later. His younger brother Wayne, arguably slightly less of a statesman, sought the Democratic nomination in the following year and was elected President. He was injured in a terrorist attack during his first term and lapsed into a coma. He never recovered (and it is implied he may have died). That’s a lot of tragedy for one family (though Jack himself has gone through a similar emotional wringer).

It is more than possible that Ted Kennedy was watching purely for the excitement of Jack Bauer’s “no nonsense” approach to counter-terrorism. He wouldn’t be the first liberal to get a kick out of it – Barbara Steisand loves the show, as does Bill Clinton. I won’t pretend that I know that he was absorbed by the plotline of the Palmer dynasty, or saw his own family reflected on screen. I did not know the man, nor am I a psychologist (even a pop one). What I do know is that I – and many others – see more than a few parallels between the two families.

David Palmer is undoubtedly an amalgamation of classic Presidents. The writers and producers clearly threw more than a few into a blender to come up with the character. The shady dealings surrounding his primary campaign involve more than a few echoes of the Clinton family, as does his rhetoric and support of direct foreign engagement. His wife Sherri, manipulative and cruel, is clearly a skewed portrayal of the popular perception of Hillary Clinton. His Presidency is rocked by personal scandal (indeed, it concerns a relationship outside his marriage – but after he divorced Sherri) – though it is not as lewd as those which dogged Clinton. It isn’t about sex, it’s about family and responsibility.

If the scandals that followed Palmer are borrowed from Bill Clinton, his fortune echoes that of perhaps the country’s greatest President. There are several conscious references to Abraham Lincoln during the show’s second season (particularly a powerful shot of Palmer sitting – waiting – in a pose meant to recall the Lincoln monument). The second season sees the cabinet and government divided. Not quite a civil war, but Palmer himself is deposed. The great threat of the day (a nuclear warhead) explodes within sight of Palmer’s plane, much as the Civil War saw fighting approach Lincoln’s seat in Washington – he even visited the front lines. No sooner is the threat over than Palmer forgives those who sided against him (with one notable exception), much like Lincoln forgave the dissenters. The most tragic parallel was the assassination attempt made on Palmer after the crisis had passed, much as Lincoln was shot after the civil war. Of course, Palmer survived (this time).

So, what elements of Palmer does he share with JFK? Admittedly the overtones aren’t quite as strong as in the above two examples, but they are undoubtedly present. It tends to get overshadowed in the era of Barrack Obama, but – like Palmer and Obama – Kenendy was the first of a particular ethnic minority to reach the presidency. Kennedy was an Irish Catholic. And though we see echoes of Hillary in Sherri’s manipulative wife, we could also see shades of Kennedy’s father, pushing and manipulating him towards the presidency. The aforementioned assassination attempt left Palmer with a scar on his hand during the third season of the show – which saw him taking medication (though, in true 24 fashion, this minor detail was soon forgotten). Kennedy himself took painkillers for a back complaint for most of his life. Kennedy also employed his brother – Robby – as part of his administration, much as Palmer employs his brother Wayne.

Conspiracy nuts attribute a lot of things to discord within JFK’s inner circle. Many even believe that those in his circle of trust actively considered towards his assassination. Others suggest that he was undermined by his own intelligence agencies. Palmer is similarly undercut (by the NSA) and is almost removed from the Presidency by a plot involving his close colleagues (though he is never intended to be murdered).

What is interesting is that Palmer – unlike Kennedy or Lincoln – does not die in office. Unlike Kennedy he serves out his full term. However, that term is his only term and ends in relative disgrace and despair as the consequences of past actions come back to haunt the brothers. Is this a dramatisation of the commonly-held speculation that Camalot would not have ended so magically, were it not for the assassination of JFK? That the women and the painkillers and the scandals would have found the light of day and worn down and beaten America’s most fresh-faced President? Palmer’s decision not to seek a second term represents the death of his innocence, much as many suggest the end of the Kennedy administration represented the death of American innocence.

It seems pointless to discuss post-presidency Palmer, since no Kennedy enjoyed a post-presidency. He makes a brief guest-starring stint near the end of the fourth season, drafted as an adviser to the second President to follow him into office, President Charles Logan. If Palmer is the epitome of a ‘good’ President (Clinton without the vice; Lincoln and Kennedy without the death), Logan is a ‘bad’ one (mostly Nixon). The line of succession between Palmer and Logan echoes that between Kennedy and Nixon (it’s also never specifically mentioned who Palmer ran against for his first election, so he could have contested Logan as Kennedy did Nixon). Logan did not directly follow the Palmer administration, just as Nixon did not directly follow Kennedy. One President in each line (Kennedy-Johnston-Nixon and Palmer-Keeler-Logan) did not serve a full term (Kennedy was killed and succeeded by Johnston, Keeler went into a coma and was succeeded by Logan – it’s fun to note that the provisos governing succession where a President is comatose arose because of the Kennedy assassination; no one knew what would happen if he didn’t die).

Any similarities between Charles Logan and Richard Nixon are entirely intentional...

Any similarities between Charles Logan and Richard Nixon are entirely intentional...

Logan is in many ways a more direct copy of an actual historical figure than any other presidential character in the show. From negotiations with Russia through to serving as a Vice President before assuming the Oval Office, right down to his resignation (forced by a recording, no less) and the shady goings on with his staff (apparently with his implicit blessing), Logan is a modern Nixon. At one stage, he even gets down on his knees with his Kissinger-esque Chief of Staff to pray, emulating a famous scene at the height of the Watergate scandal.

We don’t really see enough of the Palmer/Logan dynamic to extrapolate more. Of course, Palmer is assassinated at the start of the fifth season by a sniper’s bullet at a downtown LA hotel. This is, in a way, more reminiscent of the death of Bobby Kennedy than John. Bobby was shot after a public appearance at a hotel, but at close range. JFK was hot by a sniper’s bullet, though. And – perhaps in a nod to some of the crazier conspiracy theories that rear their heads in films like Oliver Stone’s Nixon (where Nixon attends a meeting of conspirators in Dallas days before the shooting) – Logan is revealed as tangentially involved.

As a side note (and we’re on tangents of tangents now), Charles Logan would be replaced by his Vice President upon his resignation. As Vice President Hal Gardner had been appointed after Keeler had gone into a coma, and as he failed to win (or seek – the show leaves it ambiguous) reelection, that makes Gardner only the second person (within the fictional context of 24) to serve as President without ever winning the approval of the American people for high office. Fittingly, the other is Gerard Ford, Nixon’s Vice President and the man who barely had time to move into the Vice President’s house before he heard he would be taking the big job. But that’s just an aside.

We present to you America's first bald President...

We present to you America's first bald President...

After the death of David, his younger brother Wayne seeks the presidency in his name. Both younger Kennedy brothers – Bobby and Edward – sought the Democratic nomination for President, in both cases campaigning heavily upon the memory of their older brother. Though this represents the closest that a sibling ever came to reaching the White House, neither figure made it past the primaries – Bobby was tragically assassinated and Edward was involved in the Chappaquiddick scandal surrounding the death of a young campaign worker. Unlike his counterparts, Wayne makes his way to the White House, though – even there – he finds it difficult to escape the shadow of his brother.

Once in the White House, Wayne’s Presidency arguably more closely mirrors that of JFK than his brother’s – though we really don’t see too much of it. We do know that he was forced to adopt a Vice President in Noah Daniels with whom he differed greatly in order to secure an electoral victory – much the same way as JFK was saddled with Lyndon B. Johnston. Daniels is show to resent the input of Palmer’s siblings in much the same way as Johnston was know to resent the influence held by the younger Kennedy sibling – however Daniels’ problem lies not with the reckless younger brother, but the family’s youngest sister. As if to emphasis the link between the Palmers and the Kennedys further, the show introduces us to a younger sister championing the cause of civil rights in the world (sounds a bit like Eunice Kennedy, doesn’t it?).

Johnston replaced Kennedy following the assassination much as Daniels would replace Palmer when he went into a coma. Wayne Palmer did not finish his term (much like JFK), as a result of brain injuries received during a terrorist attack on the White House. He lapsed into a coma and was never heard from again (in what has become a minor trend). It’s also interesting to note that a minor thread from early in the season has Palmer’s administration dealing with a civil rights issue on the verge of exploding, and turning to his sister for help and advice – much as Bobby consulted with Jack over the explosive civil rights issues during his term. The legacy ends with Daniels losing the subsequent election – though he suggests that he didn’t really want to win. This is perhaps a distant echo of Lyndon B. Johnston’s decision not to seek a second nomination for President, seemingly tired with the job (though cynics would suggest he simply knew that he would lose).

Of course, as I note above, there’s no proof or evidence that Senator Kennedy saw any of his family in the drama unfolding, nor that he thought about it in any great detail. It is an interesting prism to view the series through, though. The show gets a lot of flack for being shallow and thoughtless, but I’ve always found there’s a lot hidden below the surface. It’s easy to focus on the gaffes or the cliche’s or how ridiculously over-the-top the storylines can go in an effort to keep viewers hooked, but the show works because it features stunning storytelling and great performances.

The Palmer family storyline is coiled around the first six years of the show (though it fades to the background for most of the fourth season). It offers a fairly compelling view of the perils of leadership and power, and the dangers of naivity and idealism in those corridors of power. Both David and Wayne are idealised human beings – reflecting the general perception of the more charming leaders as ‘men of the people’ – but they are also never really cut out for how the real world works.

Much of that suspension of the cynical view of politics surrounds the Kennedy dynasty and their grip on the American psyche. Jackie did a fantastic job in cultivating that image of Camalot, a magical realm brimming with potential. In real life, the world cut short the potential of the family to affect the change that most people believe that they could have introduced. The death of Kennedy seamlessly blends into the apathy and cynicism that defines politics since the Nixon years (though it’s funny to hear that from people who weren’t alive for that seemingly vital time).

If 24 does intend for us to compare the two political dynasties, then what does it want us to take from it? Despite the seemingly recurrent attempts to cut the Palmer administration, it endures and perseveres through assassination attempts and attempted coups. However, even though palmer may cheat fate, the question remains whether it was for the best. Certainly his administration does not explode, or fall apart, but his idealism is shattered; his momentum lost. The world may not have beaten him, but it has beaten him down. His era didn’t end with the finality of a gunshot or a grand explosion ushering in the era of a new age, it simply faded away, and the cynicism that followed Kennedy followed him as well.

As for Wayne’s presidency, the show seems to suggest that anyone succeeding a close relative to the White House (and a close relative beloved of the general public) would have a hard time in transitioning across. Wayne is consistently portrayed as weak and unsure what to do – unable to make the tough calls and more than willing to flip-flop. He isn’t his own man in the role, as it is hard to believe one could be. How would a second Kennedy presidency have gone? How would either of the two cope with being compared to one of the most popular world leaders in the last half-century?

I’m probably doing that thing that I always do, where I read far too much into things. But still, it seems a little… almost eerie that the last surviving Kennedy brother would die only a year after the Palmer family had faded away on the show. The seventh season – that most recently produced – featured an entirely new White House administration which it will be interesting to watch grow over the next year or so. It’s rare that TV can tell such a sweeping saga covering an entire family – the blood-thirsty nature of 24 means that you can get through a whole generation a lot quicker.

I don’t know what Ted Kennedy saw in the show, but I can say that I hope he enjoyed it as much as I did.

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