WASHINGTON, June 23, 2006 -- It's not unusual for hit TV shows to attract fans and draw crowds at fan conventions.... such as for ABC's "Lost," or CBS's "CSI." But in Washington today, there was a fan convention that was a tad unusual.
At the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, the Heritage Foundation hosted a forum on the hit FOX-TV show "24" that can only be described as adulatory. Though the panel featured homeland security experts, the co-creators of "24" and three of the show's stars to purportedly discuss "'24' and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does it Matter?" the event became a love-fest -- a lofty, intellectual, probing one, but a love-fest nonetheless, with the amphitheater packed with rows and rows of the show's fans from the city's conservative power structure.
Front row center sat Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff gave the opening remarks. And it was a chance to see Rush gush.
"I am literally in awe of the creativity of the brains behind the program," said conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh, who moderated the panel. "The vice president's a huge fan. Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld's a huge fan."
Conservatives are usually rather disdainful, at least officially, of Hollywood's productions, which they view as often being liberal dreams (see: "West Wing") or propaganda (see: MTV). Since its debut a few weeks after 9/11, however, "24" has managed not only to climb to the top of the ratings, but to build a serious conservative fan base that reaches the highest echelons of the U.S. government.
Chertoff noted that the show had some differences with his reality.
"I do not have an ops center like CTU," he said, referring to the sleek black office space in the show's Los Angeles counter-terrorism unit. He added that few matters in his world are resolved in 24 hours, and his employees don't get information "through measures that violate the law."
That said, the general themes of the show are real, Chertoff said. "The characters are presented with difficult choices, choices about taking violent and drastic action against a threat and weighing that against the consequence of not taking the action and the destruction that might otherwise ensue."
Chertoff said that the characters on "24," like Homeland Security personnel and others in the national security infrastructure "are always trying to make the best choice in a series of bad options. When there is no clear magic bullet to solve the problem and you have to weight the costs and benefits of a series of unpalatable alternatives. People are attracted to that because it reflects real life."
Limbaugh noted that he hadn't seen the show until someone gave him the DVDs of the first two seasons and on a flight to Dubai, he and former vice presidential aide Mary Matalin watched 18 hours of the show all the way through.
Amidst the fawning and the cheap shots about who should get a cameo (Limbaugh pitched antiwar Democratic Congressman "Jack Murtha as head of a new KGB") burned a big question -- why has this show been so embraced at this difficult time in the nation's history? Especially by conservatives?
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had a cameo last season as a random CTU paper-pusher. The conservative Washington Times has written that the show "identifies the terrorist enemy without flinching and lets the good guys fight to win -- without apologies." Show co-creator Joel Surnow told the Times that "If there's a bomb about to hit a major U.S. city and you have a person with information ... if you don't torture that person, that would be one of the most immoral acts you could imagine."
On today's panel Surnow said the show was very relatable. "The show is a tragedy," he said. "I mean it's optimistic in that we always do get the bad guy but there's always a price to pay, just like in war." The show's alpha-male, on-again-off-again CTU agent Jack Bauer as played by Kiefer Sutherland, paid a price in the first season when (spoiler alert!) his mission to save his family by rescuing his daughter was ruined when his wife was killed.
The panel also featured Robert Cochran, a co-executive producer and series co-creator; Howard Gordon, a co-executive producer and writer on the show; James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow on defense and homeland security issues for The Heritage Foundation; and David Heyman director and senior fellow of the homeland Security program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
After the event, we caught up with the three actors on the panel and asked them what they thought about all the Republican love. After all, conservatives have for years cited Hollywood's pernicious liberal influence as one of the greatest problems for our nation. (President Bush, July 2004: "The other day, my opponent said, when he was with some entertainers from Hollywood, that they were the heart and soul of America. I believe the heart and soul of America is found in places right here, in Marquette, Michigan.")
"What am I doing here?" joked Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays the perpetually annoyed, fidgety, gifted CTU agent Chloe O'Brian. "I don't know what's going on, I don't know where I am, I don't know who I am anymore."
Rajskub said being embraced by the power structure in Washington is "sort of odd, you know? I don't really know what to think of it. I really am kind of beside myself and speechless to be here, it's really very, very strange.
She did note that she sought help from Justice Thomas during the event, when she didn't know how to answer a question from the audience. "I gave him a shout-out," she said. "I was like, 'Justice, what should I say?'"
Her conclusion about the day's panel: "I have to start reading more, unfortunately, if this is going to keep happening."
Carlos Bernard, who plays complex CTU agent Tony Almeida, allowed that to see the show so embraced by the Bush administration and its supporters is "a little strange." At Major League Baseball's All-Star game he met former President George H.W. Bush, also a fan of the show.
"He's a fanatic," Bernard said. "It was kind of strange, because he used to be the head of the CIA and everything, so I took it as a compliment."
Bernard does see some elements of the zeitgeist in his show's Neilsens. "In my opinion, the reason why people love the show so much is because I think it actually embodies our spirit as a country. I think it embodies the fact that the Jack Bauer character and the other characters that work to fight terrorism just are not going to quit, they're not going to give up, and I think that embodies the spirit of the United States of America."
Rush Limbaugh pointed out that while Almeida seemed to have been killed last season, the audience was never shown his dead body. Bernard refused to answer the question as to whether the Phoenix-like Almeida would rise from the ashes once again, though he noted that he had talked the shows creators out of killing him once "and they've talked themselves out of it probably three other times."
Gregory Itzin -- the most thespianic of the panelists, who plays the conniving President Charles Logan -- notes that "it's also true -- at least it's been reported as true -- that President Clinton is a big fan, Barbra Streisand is a big fan, a lot of liberals like it too."
As for the show's conservative fan base, Itzin says "it has to do with the cowboy mentality of Jack Bauer. I think we need a hero. It's been written constantly in the last couple of years there are no heroes anymore. This is a hero for our times. And he's an American hero. He's an individual, he's a loner, he's on his own mission, he disregards order, but all for the greater good of this country. I think that is a huge lure."
But Itzin also acknowledged that perhaps some of the show's popularity is because of its relevance -- that it taps into difficult, but important political and ethical issues of the day.
"There are issues that are in the show, that I keep coming in my head to the torture issue," Itzin said. "This is very much of a cornerstone debate about this show."
Itzin said he "can take it from my character's point of view. He doesn't want it (torture) to happen, but if you need that information to find out where the nuke is hidden, you get it. And morality be damned. Because it's a bigger question and so I can see why people's spirits can become compromised and you have to validate the choices that you make. Because a lot of the hand-wringing is based on an emotional response. Not an intellectual response. And I think that's sort of where we are right now."