Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 20 January 2009
Source 16mm-to-VHS transfer
In 1938, as Europe moved irreversibly closer to war, Pope Pius XI took note of the heightened levels of bigotry and suppression throughout the continent and sent off a flurry of letters to American clergy; seeing the United States as representing the promise of freedom and acceptance, the pontiff asked his overseas contacts to “start an initiative to enrich the education America’s Catholic school children receive in civics, the social sciences and economics.” 1 The Catholic University of America, or CUA, which was located in Washington, D.C., responded with more than three decades of publications focused on educating children in just such areas of study, all with heavy anti-Soviet and anti-Fascist undertones. One such publication, a comic-book entitled Treasure Chest, was an ingenious vehicle for reaching text-weary adolescents: “Illustrated by professional artists, some of whom went on to draw for Marvel Comics, the educational comic book emphasized ideals of patriotism, faith, equality and anti-communism.” 2
In 1964, the same year that Irving Wallace published The Man, his voluminous and entirely fictional account of our nation’s first African-American president, Treasure Chest introduced to its pages Timothy Pettigrew, the governor of New York. Veiled by shadows, his philosophy unspecified, Pettigrew runs for and receives the nomination for president of an unnamed political party. The ambiguity in all of this was not unintentional – Pettigrew is never described in terms of his affiliations, never designated as “liberal” or “conservative” – and helped to underscore the need for a non-partisan and all-inclusive renewal of faith in the American political system, starting with the nation’s youth. It was only on the last page of the series’ last issue, though, as Timothy Pettigrew moves through the crowd at his party’s convention and ascends the stage to accept the nomination, that he emerges from his status as a faraway silhouette and is finally revealed to readers: he is an African-American.
In a 2008 article published on the website for the CUA’s Office of Public Affairs, we are offered the following description of the comics’ approach to Pettigrew’s race:
In the issues about his campaign for president, Gov. Pettigrew’s features are shown only in silhouette and his comments often emanate from somewhere just outside the comic strip panel, so it was not until the final page of the last installment – when he has just won the nomination of his party – that readers saw and understood he was a black man. Throughout the series, which is set in 1976, readers get an impression of Pettigrew as a principled, kind and wise politician—and then they face their own potential biases when they learn he is African-American.
When Wallace’s The Man was made into a feature film in 1972, screenwriter Rod Serling and director Joseph Sargent used a similar device to hide the identity of their main character. The President and Speaker of the House, both on a trip to Europe, are killed in a building collapse; the Vice-President, a once great statesman with lifelong ambitions for the highest of high offices now in the throes of death and bound to a wheelchair, refuses the job outright, telling those gathered in the White House, “I don’t think we can handle that many presidential funerals.” The Cabinet and staff, now without a leader, turn to the fourth in line, a virtual unknown who is revealed with a quick tilt up to his face as he takes the phone-call announcing his succession to the Oval Office. He is Senator Douglass Dilman, President Pro-Temp of the Senate, and this usually innocuous camera movement is clearly meant to shock, to make audiences gasp at the sudden knowledge that, “Oh! He’s African-American!”
Much like Timothy Pettigrew, Douglass Dilman’s individuality and independence from Washington is heavily stressed: his party identification is irrelevant, as is his ideology; we’re never educated in Douglass Dilman the politician, apart from the knowledge that he comes from New Hampshire and was given the President Pro-Tempore job as a pathetic way to sooth the nation’s growing racial tensions. He is also a former professor who speaks astutely and drops literary references into conversation without batting an eye, creating an immediate contrast to the idea, shared by much of the Cabinet and most of Washington, that he is nothing more than an accidental president, a token seat-filler with little knowledge of the job. And while those who surround him are detached and resentful, Dilman is not; he’s stern yet good-humored, gruff and life-hardened but unassuming, decisive with a willingness to concede. This unplanned successor who begins his presidency by saying little and reading from prepared statements soon finds his own footing, casting aside the cynical glances of his inherited Cabinet and the rebellious attitudes of his daughter.
Dilman’s leading antagonist is a squat, vicious senator named Watson. Preferring Arthur Eaton, the Secretary of State, Watson immediately begins trying to dilute Dilman’s newfound powers through legislation, first by proposing a bill that would require all presidents to get Congressional approval before dismissing members of the Cabinet – a move that Dilman knows is aimed at him “like a harpoon” – and then by using his position on a powerful committee to investigate Robert Wheeler, an African-American college student suspected of travelling overseas and assassinating a South African leader. Wheeler returns to the United States and manages to elicit public support from Dilman, who is convinced of his innocence, before the truth is discovered – there is footage of Wheeler committing the assassination, and his alibi that he was in Burundi is disproven – and Dilman must go on the offensive, forced to decide whether Wheeler should be granted clemency – the South African judicial system is still racially and politically biased, taking away rights from the nation’s oppressed black population, and Wheeler would most certainly die – or be sent back to face trial, which Watson and his associates would latch onto as an example of his sensitivities and weaknesses, especially when it comes to issues of race.
There is also Eaton’s wife, a prejudiced Washington elitist whose lone task has been promoting her husband’s all-but-assured run for the presidency. Over what is supposed to be a gracious and formal dinner between Dilman, his daughter, and the Cabinet, she discusses her political pedigree at length, making sure to mention how her father was a senator and her grandfather was a Supreme Court justice, and in doing so proudly reveals how little tolerance she has for anyone who isn’t like her. She dismisses Dilman outright as a joke, scoffs at his own heritage, and actively promotes her husband while sipping from her glass of wine, inebriated. Earlier, after Eaton returns from the first night preparing the White House for Dilman’s stay, she criticizes him for not taking the job right away, despite the laws on succession, and then refers to the new president with a racial slur.
The issue of Wheeler becomes the film’s central focus near the end, as Eaton declares his candidacy and Watson waits for Dilman’s presidency to implode. Caught in a precarious position, Dilman has a second meeting with Wheeler, only now the mood has changed. Dilman revokes his support, and the two men exchange long arguments over race, responsibility, and justice. Wheeler sees Dilman as nothing but a sellout, a man who’s compromised himself to keep power, and Dilman sees the young man as a hypocrite, actively becoming the very thing he rails against, a sentiment he conveys in one of the film’s best scenes, delivered almost as a monologue:
DILMAN: …Black men don’t burn crosses. They don’t plant a bomb in a church and kill four children. They don’t geld innocent little sharecroppers. They don’t hunt down a Martin Luther King and shoot him with a telescopic sight. That is cool stuff, Mr. Wheeler, that is bloodless. That is a master plan that comes out of a convocation of lizards. Passion may drive you into the streets to throw bricks or to fire a building or to snipe from a roof. All that is ugly, Mr. Wheeler, but that is passion. But to buy a gun and travel five-thousand miles to seek out a victim, to falsify a passport, to plant an alibi, and then to kill a human being and come back here and feel persecuted because a black man in a high place refuses to accept the politics of a corpse as a measure of your innocence, don’t you call that passion, Mr. Wheeler. You call that what it is. It’s arrogance, and ignorance, and the kind of selective morality you’d expect from Adolph Eichmann.
Dilman’s final decision on the matter, delivered to the press before he takes the stage at his party’s convention, puts him at odds with his daughter, who repeats many of Wheeler’s own sentiments about race in the previous scene before storming out of the Oval Office, having asked rhetorically how one leaves the First Family.
At the heart of Sargent’s film is a radical civil awareness. During his first few days in office, Dilman remains at his desk while advisors discuss legislation, and during his first press conference he reads from prepared statements until an African-American reporter interrupts proceedings and accuses him of being disingenuous. His first Cabinet meeting is a cacophony of debate that excludes him, and it’s the revelation of Senator Watson’s bill – kept from him by advisors, he soon discovers – that drives Dilman to finally assume control. But despite the film’s extraordinary message and subject-matter, Douglass Dilman would be alone for almost twenty-five years. By the end of 1990s, however, there came a sudden and wondrous explosion of African-American presidents in film and on television, from Tommy Lister in The Fifth Element and Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact to Dennis Haysbert on 24 and Chris Rock in Head of State. And while The Man is the most grounded of all these productions in reality – there are no asteroids or alien spacecrafts, no punch-lines about white candidates or superhuman government agents fighting terrorists – it’s also the most overlooked, forgotten because of fears over its reception by the studios that produced and distributed it.
The importance of Douglas Dilman, not to mention Timothy Pettigrew and Tom Beck and David Palmer, is that they weren’t African-American presidents, even in times when such a leader would have been a monumental step towards equality, but instead presidents who happen to be African-American. To reduce a man or woman to their race, gender, or sexual orientation in the course of, say, a political campaign is to make them into a novelty, to rob them of any identity and reduce them to nothing more than a single dimensional caricature based on something that is irrelevant. For the last two years, and especially the last two months, we’ve been bombarded by television news-stories and print headlines and talking heads and photograph captions that have continually made note of Barack Obama’s race rather than his objectives. And while I recognize the importance of the moment – only forty-four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – I’ve become somewhat disillusioned by our insistence on repeating it. I can only hope that Sargent’s film, in which those around Dilman spend much of his first few days and weeks in office struggling to get over the color of his skin while Dilman himself must overcome the obstacles of people’s perceptions, doesn’t become a sort of appalling prophecy.
The 2008 article that reintroduced Timothy Pettigrew ends with CUA writers making the following statements about their decades-old candidate: “In 1964 when the comic strip was published, blacks in many Southern states still couldn’t eat at their cities’ lunch counters, much less run for president. The last panel of the series left open the question of whether a black man could be elected in 1976.” The answer may have come thirty-two years too late, but it came.