Grace McCallister: Fake TV Historian

Historians in the News

Virginia Heffernan, commenting in the NYT about the portrayal of historian Grace McCallister, the fake professor star of the WB show, "Jack and Bobby" (12-30-04):

... Professor McCallister - the mother of the 51st president of the United States, in the show's conceit - is meant to be a great contrarian, but she's incongruously reverential about canonical writers. A professor of history at the fictional Plains University in Missouri, Grace has two Ph.D.'s, both inexplicably in history; still, her addresses to the undergraduates of the plains recall Miss Jean Brodie's exhortations to Scottish schoolgirls. Only less intelligent.

In place of lectures, Grace, like so many Hollywood professors, gives psych-up talks about abstractions (God, love, death), reciting haphazard fragments of philosophy and poetry without so much as suggesting a critique along logical, aesthetic, political or historical lines. She makes no original arguments. In spite of her reputation for fierceness, Grace does not even evaluate the writers she cites or recast their place in intellectual history, as she must have been called on to do in at least one of her dissertations. Rather, Nietzsche, Brecht, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert M. Pirsig and Stanley Kunitz are all the same to her. She's not, in short, very professorial.

But what does it mean to be professorial on television? From doctors and forensics specialists, viewers clearly want an element of verisimilitude; consultants police the vocabulary of medical professionals and scientists on shows like"House" and"CSI." But"Jack & Bobby," which does run its episodes by a Duke historian, does not strive for accuracy. From Professor McCallister, we get less a credible academic and more a"strong woman," a showoff whose style is part Camille Paglia provocateur and part spinster shrew: a 60's pothead with a socialist past who still boasts about being"elected to Phi Beta Kappa" while carping at everyone for not understanding women, the downtrodden or whatever. (Grace teaches a course called"Radical Feminism," which sounds like fun.)

She talks like a marrow-of-life zealot, only to retreat to stilted management-speak when it comes to motherhood and matters of the heart. In spite of her position in the history department and her focus on what one of the show's producers calls"intellectual studies," she teaches what might at a stretch be called political philosophy: she urges her students to vote, to question God's existence and to make the most of their lives. She instructs Tom (Bradley Cooper), a graduate student who is preparing to lecture on existentialism, to emphasize"the distinction between fear and anxiety," an idea that strikes him as highly original, though the point is made in every summary of"Being and Nothingness" and would strike even high school students in a Sartre phase as elementary. What's more, Grace hates television, though she participates in occasional vague discussions of"images of women" in pop culture, in what could be the show's jab at the occasional inanity of cultural studies.

Still, in spite of all that's inane in what she says, Grace McCallister - in Ms. Lahti's keen portrayal of her - does come across as more ferocious than any woman on television. Sure, this self-described radical supported John Kerry. (Faith in the mainstream parties would be enough to make her considered conservative in many history departments.) But at Plains University, the president, Peter Benedict (John Slattery), supports George W. Bush. Her son Bobby (Logan Lerman), the future president, becomes a Republican for a time, which suggests that the show sympathizes with that party. Her atheism also drives Bobby to the ministry....

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