America’s Most Powerful Fan Boys

So, what happens when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, political operative Mary Matalin, and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff get together?

Maybe they talk about what Jack Bauer did to get out of the latest scrape this week on their favorite television program, 24.

Rush Limbaugh moderated and Chertoff participated in a special discussion last week of 24, hosted by the Heritage Foundation, and featuring some of the program’s writers, producers, and stars. Clarence Thomas and his wife was in the audience. And along the way, Limbaugh outed a number of other high powered fans of the series.

Limbaugh, who says he hasn’t become obsessed with a prime time drama since Dallas, described one marathon viewing session with Matalin on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan:

So a friend went out and got the first two seasons on DVD and I stopped in Washington and picked Mary up, and I said, “You ever heard of this show 24?”

She said, “Ah, people have told me about.”

I said, “You ever watched it?”

She said, “No.”

I said, “Well, I’ve got the first two seasons on DVD. Let’s pop a DVD of season one in and see what happens.”

Sixteen hours later we landed in — (Laughter.) Sixteen hours later landed in Dubai, having watched 18 episodes of season one. We did not sleep. After the first four or five episodes, I said, “Mary, let’s just watch one more. We’ve gotta get some sleep. We’re going to Afghanistan.”


We kept on after every episode, “We’ll just watch one more.” (Laughter.) And the only reason we stopped is because we landed in Dubai, and the whole week we’re in Afghanistan — which was another story itself, and it was an amazing trip — the whole week we can’t wait to get back to finish the final six episodes of season one and watch season two on the way back. .

That’s how I became familiar with it. I came back from that experience, and I was telling everybody on my radio program about it. I like to share my passions and the things that I enjoy, and the co-creator of the program, unbeknownst to me, is a huge fan of my program. I’m not surprised, but — (Laughter.) (Applause.) …Joel Surnow called and thanked me for plugging the show and so forth. I can’t believe that. So this relationship started. I’ve been out there twice, once a set visit while they were actually filming the last two weeks of the previous season.

Most of us who have started watching a good television series on DVD have had similar experiences — it’s really hard to stop after only one episode … even if the fate of the free world is in your hands.

Personally, I stopped watching 24 after the second season but I learned a long time ago that you should never knock someone else’s fandom. I may have some questions, though, about the reasons why these powerful fanboys like this particular program. Here’s Limbaugh again:

I don’t think a majority of the American people, but it’s active in the minds of many in what I call the Drive-By Media, trying to stir things up — that’s “Club Gitmo,” I call it. Abu Ghraib. The program 24 routinely portrays what people would consider torture. The ticking- time-bomb scenario happens in 24 sometimes multiple times an episode. The aspect of torture as portrayed on the program versus the way the media in this country en masse is trying to portray us as evil.

The comment is a little jumbled but I think Rush is saying that he likes the show because Jack gets to torture people without having to feel bad about it.

The program’s producers were quick to discount Rush’s interpretation — suggesting that the show was a little more ambivalent about torture than he was — but they seemed pleased as punch to have these kinds of friends in high places. After all, these guys know how to stay on the air despite some really low ratings and that knowledge might come in handy one of these days.

As for Chertoff, here’s what he had to say about the resemblances and differences between his agency and 24‘s Counter Terrorism Unit:

Typically, in the course of the show, although in a very condensed time period, the actors and the characters are presented with very difficult choices — choices about whether to take drastic and even violent action against a threat, and weighing that against the consequence of not taking the action and the destruction that might otherwise ensue.

In simple terms, whether it’s the president in the show or Jack Bauer or the other characters, they’re always trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options, where there is no clear magic bullet to solve the problem, and you have to weigh the costs and benefits of a series of unpalatable alternatives. And I think people are attracted to that because, frankly, it reflects real life. That is what we do every day. That is what we do in the government, that’s what we do in private life when we evaluate risks….Sometimes acting on very imperfect information and running the risk of making a serious mistake, we still have to make a decision because not to make a decision is the worst of all outcomes.

Chertoff went on to suggest that what he envied about the characters on the show is that they got to deal with problems in 24 hours and didn’t have to face the long term political fallout.

It would be easy to make fun of these powerful people and their pop culture consumption habits. How much fun would it be to tell the Vice President to “get a life?” But it sounds like these guys are using media more or less the same way the rest of us do. We all want to have a larger than life escape from the problems we face in our everyday lives at work and at home. We all fantasize about transgressing social norms and stepping outside of the law. Some of my readers enjoy playing first person shooters. These guys enjoy imagining a world where the battle against global terrorism doesn’t have to slow down and wait for congressional approval and where the newspapers don’t report on all the things they do that step outside the law. Pretty much the same thing, wouldn’t you say?

Thanks to CMS alum Zhan Li for bringing this transcript to my attention


  1. At the risk of defending Mr. Limbaugh, I interpreted his comments in a slightly different manner.

    Despite its best attempts, news media is still predominantly sterile. When discussion of torture come up it is often without consideration for human elements and competing pressures.

    A television show like 24, at its best, is incredibly visceral. Instead of making issues such as torture abstract, the become intensely personal. It becomes immediately clear just what’s at stake, and if the show is drawing the viewers in, the time pressure becomes somehow more ‘real’ to the viewers.

    For the most part we do not engage emotionally in news media, and thus are able to assess it and its content rather rationally. In so doing we find it easy to condemn decisions made under emotional stress. When we are emotionally engaged in media we suddenly sympathize with those decisions, however much we may condemn them.

    It is, of course, possible that I give Mr. Limbaugh too much credit, but I do believe that the distinction is an important one.


  2. lydia_petze says:

    Rush Limbaugh likes my fandom. I feel dirty.

    I don’t think Rush and I are getting the same things out of 24, though. And that’s fine – the wonderful thing about popular culture is that so much *is* in the eye of the beholder and no two people every really view the same material. We do bring our backgrounds along with us.

    I am Australian and see myself as reasonably liberal (with some qualification there, I don’t toe any particular party line). I am getting a lot out of the difficult or hopeless-seeming situations Jack ends up in, the fact that he always finds himself stuck in the middle and also the character himself fascinates me. (As a *very* longtime fan of Mr. Sutherland…well, it’s not rocket science :-)) I suspect Limbaugh and some of his ultra-conservative buddies, however, are enjoying some of the hardline anti- “anti-American” elemnts the show sometimes seems to support.

  3. NotAFanOfEither says:

    Struck by both Henry’s comments and those by Thomas Robinson, above. I do wonder where the empathy for human suffering is for both Jack Bauer and the Rush Limbaugh contingent. Did Jack’s torture efforts produce useable information? If you have to torture, set innocent civilians on fire, destroy a country’s infrastructure in order to get a scrap of useable information, is it worth it?

    That members of the current US administration see fit to host a discussion group on 24 calls for a close examination of why this powerful and ruthless group enjoy it so much. Is it the action, the story line, cute little Keifer? Or is it something more sinister, a simple way to equate their own highly questionable behavior as a set of fictional narratives, to be played out by actors on a distance stage, and enjoyed from the comfort of our TVs? One wonders if we’re supposed to enjoy this jolly engagement in Iraq with the same dispassion and left-brain enjoyment of plot twists as some do 24.

    I’ve lost the attribution, but this discussion calls forth an old quote: “History is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.” Maybe we should amend that to read “History is great entertainment for those who think…” And what is the present but the next history?

  4. I started watching 24 at the start of S1, because I’d heard interesting things about the conceit of the show and because I’m a fan of a few of the actors involved. I was sucked-in immediately. It reminded me of the experience of watching early X-Files — Jack Bauer’s complicated life seemed like an illustration of “Trust No One,” and I loved the twists and turns.

    By S3 I was starting to get uneasy, and S4 actively bothered me. The show began to feel like an apologia for torture. It was too easy to make the leap between Jack torturing people “because he had to” and the disaster at Abu Ghraib prison. I gritted my teeth and kept watching, because by that point I was invested in the characters even if the show’s politics were starting to make me queasy.

    This most recent season restored my faith in the show somewhat. Though we lost some characters I had dearly loved, and there continued to be some violence and torture, I felt like the creators were recapturing some of the stunning grey-area stuff that had made S1 so interesting.

    I’m a little bit distressed to discover that I apparently share a fandom with Mr. Limbaugh, but I suppose that’s the way of fannishness. (Is it fair for me to want to yell, “hey, you! Get out of my fandom!” 🙂

  5. A key point when considering 24 is that the show is produced by the Fox network, a long-time apologist mouthpiece for this administration. In a weirdly recursive way, administration higher-ups probably like the show because it is actively written to spin their actions, rather than because they just happen to find things to relate to in the general plotline.

    I, too, have had to stop watching 24 after I started to feel actively dirty about the politics. It’s set up so that one sympathizes with Jack Bauer as he makes Geneva-shattering Dirty Harry choices, and I really just…can’t sympathize with that. Kristian William’s recent (excellent) book on torture in America (American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination) goes into some of the ways America has tended to use the “ticking time bomb” scenario as a way to justify many of our more horrendous human rights abuses; 24 is the most egregious example of that I’ve yet seen. The creepiest part about it is that Jack is always “right” – that is, he never tortures someone who then gives the wrong information, or who turns out to be innocent. All violations of civil procedure and human rights are retroactively “justified” by achieving demonstrably desirable ends.

  6. I share Stute Fish’s distaste for the extraordinary representation of torture on 24 (which includes lurid scenarios such as the President personally overseeing the torture of one of his closest government officials)

    I would point though that Fox’s entertainment cable networks cannot be so easily associated with the Fox News Channel’s political identity and agenda.

    There is substantial number of entertainment shows on Fox and FX which express political and cultural perspectives are likely not palatable for conservatives.

    I would also note that while Rupert Murdoch is a famous conservative, his number two, COO of News Corp (and corporate mentor to Murdoch’s older kids, and sometimes talked of as News Corp’s next CEO), Peter Chernin, is a noted liberal and Democrat donor.

    The same is true of Tony Vinciquerra, the current CEO of Fox Networks.