Pop Culture Debate: Should You Vote for Jed Bartlet or David Palmer?


Tonight is the last of the 2012 Presidential Debates between President Barack Obama and the Republican Presidential Nominee, Mitt Romney. The country will watch — and learn — as the two share their positions on foreign policy issues. While Obama and Romney answer important questions about Libya, Afghanistan, and China, we at Hollywood.com are staging a debate of our own. Today, we decided to argue the subject of which fictional U.S. President we’d rather see get elected. Writers Alicia Lutes and Christian Blauvelt square off on this vital issue.

Alicia Lutes’ Opening Argument for Jed Bartlet:
Politics! Man, we just can’t seem to get enough of them these days, huh? With Election Day breathing down our necks, it’s no wonder we tend to look nostalgically on our former fictional presidents with such fondness. Many of them are crafted as an ideal that would probably never be elected in today’s hostile climate. But in the pantheon of faux-presidents, the most impressive one of all is undoubtedly The West Wing‘s own, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by the incomparable Martin Sheen).

President Bartlet, prior to his time in office, was an academic economist with a fierce belief in the good of people. He attended Notre Dame—despite also being accepted to Yale and Harvard—as he also thought of becoming a priest. (And we all know that religious beliefs are a big thing for politicians.) Rather than be strictly defined by his religious beliefs, President Bartlet’s pragmatic take on his own Catholic faith provided him with a compassionate backbone that coursed through everything he did. After getting a Master’s Degree and a PhD from the London School of Economics (so impressive!), he became a tenured professor at Dartmouth University.

Only then did he decide to get into politics—where he served three terms as state representative and later in the House of Representatives, before returning to his home state of New Hampshire to serve as Governor. For a state as libertarian and at-times conservative as New Hampshire can be, this was no small feat for a wildly liberal candidate. Oh, and did we mention that he has a Nobel Prize in economics?

President Bartlet was a man who knew the two most important things to grow and move a country forward are education and the economy—something that no doubt pulls at the heartstrings of any modern American, regardless of your political leanings. Always one to know that his biggest asset are the people in his orbit, President Bartlet surrounded himself with other intelligent men and women—regardless of Republican or Democratic labels (We’ll never forget you, Ainsley Hayes)—to help inform his decisions. Just look at the relationship cultivated between President Bartlet and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: Fitzwallace was a military man through-and-through, and, though their relationship was strained at first, Bartlet saw how invaluable his knowledge was to the administration (and ultimately, the American people). His respect for the strengths of others is certainly to be admired.

And don’t even get me started on the incredible achievements he made while in office! From electing highly intelligent justices into the system: including Roberto Mendoza, Evelyn Baker Lang, the first female Chief Justice, and the conservative-but-whip-smart Christopher Mulready, Bartlet’s focus was always on the protection of Americans’ right to freedom and the American way. A progressive in a time when it was deadly to do so, President Bartlet vetoed the Marriage Recognition Act, in order to further the debate on same-sex marriage: a real taboo in the early aughts. He also saved social security. Oh, and remember that whole Mideast peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Yeah, I think we can all agree that was pretty huge. A bipartisan president with a love of country, its people, and the greater, long-term good? No one holds a candle to President Bartlet. Sorry, Christian, but it’s just the truth!

Christian Blauvelt’s Opening Argument for David Palmer:
Interesting that both of our candidates are Democrats, Alicia. (We promise no institutional bias!) But how can you possibly say that Jed Bartlet is a better president than 24’s David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert)? Yeah, I know, Palmer’s critics will charge that his legacy, raised nearly to the level of myth after his tragic assassination, is an America transformed into a terror-ridden police state in which security issues dwarf all other policy priorities. But no matter. President Palmer saw America through several of its darkest hours, often while in grave jeopardy himself. Not to mention that his ability to balance personal and presidential duties, often neatly resolving all his pressing conflicts within the tidy time-span of 24 hours, is a model of multi-tasking that any Commander in Chief would hope to emulate. As far as I know, President Bartlet’s great achievement in multi-tasking was the ability to walk down hallways and talk at the same time.


David Palmer would make history as the first African-American President of the United States. His entrée to the world of politics began years earlier during his undergraduate studies at Georgetown University. Though he showed early signs of prodigious wonkery, his college career is perhaps best remembered for his epic game-winning three-pointer against DePaul in the 1979 Final Four. Putting his hoop dreams aside, Palmer earned his Juris Doctorate from the University of Maryland. His political career began in earnest when he was elected U.S. Senator from Maryland, where he quickly rose through the ranks of the Armed Services Committee. In 1998, during the military campaign against Slobodan Miloševic, he authorized several black ops missions and quickly developed a reputation for making tough but well-reasoned decisions regardless of political expediency—or even his own personal safety. When one of Miloševic’s top lieutenants sent assassins after him in retribution, Palmer didn’t waver. He even proceeded with his presidential campaign despite the threat to his own life and won the heated California Democratic primary, clinching his nomination just hours after a sniper took a shot at him.

Aside from sheer bravery, Palmer’s greatest virtue was his ability to trust. Despite his advisers telling him that former Counter-Terrorist Unit Chief Jack Bauer was a rogue agent, he believed that Bauer was a good if exceedingly violent man, who wanted to protect him. Sure, Palmer’s belief in people could be abused—most notably by his wife Sherry, who continually exploited his political clout for her own gain—but in the dark days ahead, it was his trust in the goodness of man that helped maintain American optimism.

In the first year of his presidency, his leadership would be tested when terrorists threatened to detonate a nuclear bomb in the oft-targeted city of Los Angeles. When the terrorists were revealed as Islamic radicals, Palmer urged the American people not to turn to bigotry and blame all Muslims for the crimes of a few. This nuclear threat was the first true test of his leadership, and he proved himself decisive (authorizing CTU to bring the terrorists to justice) but never a loose cannon. When it became clear that three Middle Eastern countries implicated in the attack had actually been falsely blamed, he resisted his more hawkish advisors and called off a military strike, even though that move resulted in him being temporarily removed from office via a no-confidence vote from his Cabinet under the 25th Amendment. And when he was proven right and restored to office, he did not accept nor demand the resignations of the Cabinet members who voted against him.

For sheer bravery, President Palmer cannot be underestimated. Three years into his presidency, he faced a second assassination attempt—this time with a biological agent—and still forged ahead with his reelection plans. He valued his own life less than his ability to serve the American people. And if that ability to serve were ever compromised, he would walk away gracefully. That’s just what he did when his ex-wife Sherry was killed following her own murder of one of his biggest re-election supporters. Recognizing that his tumultuous family life had undermined his effectiveness as president, he ended his reelection bid—choosing to serve the country he loved in a different, non-political way.

But history had other plans, and a couple years later Palmer was brought back in to the Oval Office to provide critical support to Acting President Charles Logan during the terrorist attacks organized by Habib Marwan. Palmer’s assistance directly led to Marwan’s death, but, respecting the power of the office, he let Logan take the credit. It’s a particularly bitter twist of fate that it would be Logan himself who authorized the death of Palmer two years later, when the former President discovered Logan’s plot to wage illegal war against Russian separatists. After three attempts on his life, Palmer was finally killed. That his murderer, President Logan, would be his successor is truly an American tragedy, matched only by the tacky move of AllState Insurance to continue using Palmer’s likeness in their commercials following his death.

A groundbreaker, a role-model, but above all, a statesman, President David Palmer will never be forgotten so long as freedom resides in the heart of America. Alicia, are you still saying that Jed Bartlet has the greater record?

Alicia’s Rebuttal:
Does President Bartlet have a better record? Pssh, no question, Christian. President Bartlet and President Palmer certainly have one thing in common: bravery. While Palmer’s reasons for bravery were far more personal, President Bartlet regularly stood in the face of danger not only for his own life, but the lives of others. American lives. (Palmer isn’t the only one that’s been shot at!) He refused to let his personal troubles get in the way of governing the nation—even when that meant putting America above his health and well-being. When (one of the few instances where dissenters and fans alike can agree that President Bartlet erred in his ways) his diagnosis of relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis was made public, everyone believed Bartlet’s time was up. But Bartlet knew his service was to the American people, not the conservatives on the right or media circus hoping to cut him off at the knees. He stood tall after realizing that what he’d done had tenuous legal standing—though it would help for you to remember that he earned nothing more than a censure.

Palmer, on the other hand, knowingly lied about his medical condition and pretended he was running the country when he was not. To say nothing of the time he lied to the L.A. chief of police in order to protect his ex-wife who was under investigation for murder. Murder! Palmer’s lies were far more prevalent than Bartlet’s. Really, Bartlet’s visibility about his MS, and his subsequent perseverance were a two-fold blessing. First, it smashed perceived stereotypes that people with MS are incapable of things, and second, it showed Bartlet’s commitment to honesty at all costs. Because for Bartlet, it wasn’t about using his power to help his family or gain political ground, it was always about the honor and allegiance toward the American people.


Your mention of how “neat and tidy” all of Palmer’s political woes were during his presidency are a shot against your own candidate! If we’ve learned anything from real and fake politics, it’s that nothing ever ends neat and tidy. And President Bartlet didn’t have a mythic legacy to fall back on: he had to work for his presidential keep. Hard. How great for Palmer that he could rest on the laurels of a collegiate basketball career! Bartlet was doing far more than beating DePaul in overtime; he invested in his own education—you know, that thing that made him a Nobel Prize winner (yeah, remember that)? How many of those does your guy have? Oh, none? OK. President Bartlet realized, through his own, that education should not be made available only to those with easy means with which to gain it—physical prowess, money, legacy. Rather, it should be available to all. That’s why Bartlet always made education a priority, including championing Toby Ziegler’s education plan to help middle class families afford college tuition prices. President Bartlet knew education was (and is!) the backbone for a strong economy, and pushed for fairness. All while facing the political opposition of a Republican congress for his entire time in office. Sure, Palmer had a JD, but Bartlet had a Ph.D. and D.Hum.Litt. What did Palmer ever do for education and the betterment of this country’s people?

What you call trust, I think many people would call recklessness—you yourself admitted that Sherry was able to undo Palmer—and in the end, she did! His life was always sensational, in the tabloid sense. From Palmer’s son being seen as a murder suspect to his own wife’s murderous shenanigans. I mean, really, his desire for political gain caused the murder of three people. How can you consider a man who has such poor judgment in his personal life to lead an entire country? Bartlet may have had an issue with the MS episode, but that was all. He believed that everything in his life should be focused on his civic duty. Because when you’re the president, the expectations on you will always be more severe than on anyone else.

With great power comes great responsibility, eh? This never left Bartlet’s mind. When his daughter was kidnapped during his second term, he temporarily relinquished office to the Republican Speaker of the House—even though many believed it would essentially kill his political career. Bartlet knew the best thing to do for the country was to have an unbiased, unaffected person holding power. He was not worried about legacy, only the country. He always believed in the greater good of man: not just for military or political gain. For Palmer, all of his eggs were laid in the Jack Bauer basket. Bartlet had faith in a whole team: a team that was intelligent, filled with best-in-their-class thought leaders and achievers.

Being good at military service isn’t the only aspect of a presidency, though that’s not to say that Bartlet wasn’t courageous in making the hard decisions. He may not have been a Marine, but his deft handling of the multitude of Situation Room crises show he was no military slouch! I imagine this would be the easy way for you to try and make your candidate look superior, but it won’t work. Bartlet was forced to make a deadly decision when the terrorist plot of a diplomat was uncovered. He stopped an attack against the U.S. In the end, assassinating Abdul Sharif, the Defense Minister of Qumar was the hard but right decision. No one is mad that President Obama killed Osama Bin Laden, right? And while sending troops to a peacekeeping mission between Israel and Palestine was also a hard choice, it was ultimately the right one to do something that, in the end, will bring far greater peace to the world. Bartlet cast a wide net because he understood how much more was at play at any given time. Heroic comes to mind. Plus, Bartlet is the president that keeps on giving. Do you see President Palmer being asked to give advice to real-life President Barack Obama twice? No, his legacy is used to shill for an insurance company.

And, lest you think that Bartlet was all action with no flair, allow me to prove you wrong while also proving his incredible compassion. President Bartlet’s speech at the end of the episode “20 Hours in America” was nothing more than a masterstroke, delivered with incredible precision and real empathy for humanity. After a bombing at Kennison State shakes America to its core, President Bartlet was the calming, eloquent beacon of a man who at times felt super-human in his abilities.

“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. 44 people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men’s team were killed and two others are in critical condition when, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United State of America. Thank you.”

I mean, need I say more?

Christian’s Rebuttal:
Palmer has his flaws for sure, but even when he made a mistake—like lying to the L.A. police chief about his ex-wife Sherry’s involvement in his campaign supporter’s murder—he took steps to correct it. In that case, he terminated his reelection bid. That’s hardly indicative of a “desire for political gain” at the expense of the country. And if transparency is important for an administration, Palmer certainly gets the highest marks. Yes, his family is dysfunctional, and his son was indeed implicated as a murder suspect. But rather than take Sherry’s advice and cover up the evidence, he gave a speech leveling with the American people about the allegations against his son and that he stood by him.

Palmer didn’t run from adversity in his personal life, nor did he in his professional life. Even when he was nearly assassinated with a biological agent—an incident broadcast on television and impossible to cover up, as you allege—he designated his VP to be the “Acting President” in his stead, much like Bartlet did during his daughter’s kidnapping crisis. On the other hand, Bartlet tried to conceal his multiple sclerosis from the nation for an astonishingly long period of time, indicating that he did suspect people would doubt his efficacy as president. Did he even doubt his ability himself? And I’m not so certain that his actions would be inspiring to people with MS. (Hide your condition from the world!)

Even with all the tumult in Palmer’s life, he never wavered in his leadership. Did Bartlet have to face three assassination attempts, a thwarted coup d’état against his administration, the possibility of a nuclear bomb destroying an American city, and a bioweapon attack? The greatest threat Bartlet had to deal with during his administration was half a world away in Qumar. Would he have been able to deal with terror in America itself on the scale that Palmer faced? I’m sure Bartlet would have had a rousing address ready to bolster the nation, but words don’t mean nearly as much as actions. And most of Bartlet’s most beautiful prose can be credited to communications director Toby Ziegler, and apparently a really great speech writer behind the scenes. (I’ve heard some guy named Aaron Sorkin.) Palmer might not have been a wordsmith, but he knew that executing policy is more important than waxing poetic with beautiful platitudes. If he didn’t have an education plan like Bartlet’s, it’s because he was too busy keeping us safe.

Alicia’s Closing Argument:
In the end, the American people don’t want a figurehead, like Palmer. They want a man of action—and President Bartlet is that man. President Palmer wasn’t the only President to deal with the things you discuss, yet somehow you feel it makes Palmer a better man for the job: why? Because he didn’t use words as effectively as Bartlet? President Bartlet survived multiple threats against America, a near-nuclear disaster in California, the threat of war, an economic downturn, a biological agent attack, a kidnapping, a shooting, and a disease, and still managed to run the country exceptionally well. Bartlet didn’t use the chaos around him as an excuse to not also create plans, budgets, and laws to grow this country—he was not of the one-track-mind that Palmer had. As president, you can’t be too busy to do all the parts of your job. In the end, President Bartlet was a man everyone could believe in, a president that America needed even in times when others may not have appreciated him (though he did win reelection, after the MS story broke, mind you, in a landslide). If American wants to know who the greatest television president is, look no further than Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. Bartlet for America! Put that on your napkin and frame it!

Christian’s Closing Argument:
If I were to cave in and play the politics of fear, I’d merely ask, “Who do you trust to keep you safe: The guy with the fancy words or the guy with the record?” But that wouldn’t be David Palmer’s style. It’s hard to imagine a president since FDR who’s had more to face, and yet Palmer never let the traumas that occurred during his presidency fundamentally change him—or the nation he had sworn to protect and serve. He was a War on Terror president who refused to be terrorized. And that’s why he gets my vote, now and forever.

[Photo Credit: FOX (2); NBC (2)]

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