Senator, We’re Ready for Your Cameo

What was John McCain doing on 24?

Sen. John McCain

Last week, The Hill caught up with John McCain as he imagined personally maiming America’s foes. “I shoot one guy’s kneecap off, only one,” McCain quipped to reporters Tuesday. “A red-hot poker is planted in someone’s chest, but other than that, there is no torture.”

What a kidder. McCain, in fact, was talking about his cameo on last night’s episode of 24, and the story went on to explain that the senator—a former guest of the Hanoi Hilton and recent sponsor of a law explicitly banning cruelty to terror suspects, known as the torture amendment—would play only the tiniest of parts on Fox’s homeland-security action hit. “Don’t blink,” said the Arizona Republican. But my eyes got itchy, and I did, and McCain’s contribution to February sweeps eluded me.

On further review, it appeared that the senator popped up in a split screen midway through the show. He held a folder and then handed it to Audrey (Kim Raver), a Defense Department liason with extraterrestrial good looks. As an actor, McCain did not live up to the promise he showed in last year’s film Wedding Crashers. There, working alongside James Carville (The War Room), he made avuncular eyes at Rachel McAdams for a moment or two and warmly greeted the parents of a Beltway bride: “Congratulations, Kathleen. Bill, congratulations.” It was modest, but McCain sold the line. Silent on 24, he had nothing to sell but himself, and that product doesn’t really go retail until New Hampshire in 2008. As The Hill pointed out, McCain had earlier professed his affection for the program on The Daily Show: “I watch it all the time. I’m sort of a Jack Bauer kind of guy.”

What kind of guy is Jack Bauer? As played by Kiefer Sutherland, he is a grace-under-pressure ex-junkie and as searing as a red-hot poker when issuing commands. In last night’s episode, on the trail of terrorists possessing a megadeath’s worth of nerve gas, he spoke to his commander in chief without any real deference. Later, he did not hesitate to get physical on one of the terrorists’ co-conspirators in order to extract some information. To invoke the epithet commonly applied to McCain, Bauer is a maverick.

That a politician who tenaciously debates the role of strenuous interrogation methods in fighting terrorism should play a bit role in a pop fantasy coloring that very debate is just a bit creepy. It is one thing to lend some local color to a movie about Vince Vaughn getting freaky with bridesmaids; it is another to supplement your national-security credentials with cool points by flitting through a show that converts terror angst into microwave-popcorn thrills. The Fox network could provide redress by arranging for some lighter cameos. How about Rick Santorum shelving books on Pamela Anderson’s Stacked? Tom DeLay asking Hank Hill for his vote? And would Dr. Bill Frist, for the sake of a few seconds on House, be up for helping Hugh Laurie insert a catheter?