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