Published November 1, 2013
What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House By Tevi Troy (Regnery, 416 pages, $18.95)
How awesome can you get? The morning announcers on WTOP, Washington’s all-news station, couldn’t get over it. Bill Clinton and Bono had appeared on the same stage the day before and, as the show’s teaser put it, the President and the Rock Star were sometimes difficult to tell apart. Bono, it seems, started it by doing his impression of Mr. Clinton’s raspy and much-imitated voice. But then, to the delight of the delirious crowd, Mr. Clinton returned the favor by doing an equally recognizable impression of Bono. “They make fun of each other because they’re friends,” said one of the announcers.
“That’s awesome!” said the other.
Speaking as one of the apparently dwindling number of Americans for whom it is decidedly not awesome—which is to say one of those who does not want the president, nor yet the ex-president, to be a celebrity—I’m sorry to say that he now not only is one but is expected to be one. Or at least he is if he is a Democrat. Good-bye, Walter Mondale. So long, Michael Dukakis. Your party is now so closely entwined with the popular culture that, as with the President and the Rock Star, it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart.
If you want to know how we got to this sad state of affairs, you should get hold of a copy of Tevi Troy’s new book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Mr. Troy, author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency, is never less than a fascinating read, but
I couldn’t get over how little disposed his book is to tell its story as one of decline. The “popular culture” of the subtitle seems to encompass Greek and Latin classics, political and moral philosophy, economics and science on the one hand, in the case of Presidents Jefferson and Adams, and on the other hand movies, TV, and popular music when it comes to more recent presidents. And yet there is hardly more than a hint that the change is of anything more than the type of media. But then that’s probably just me and my old-man belief that the world is going to the bow-wows.
Mr. Troy identifies the election of 1828, when the learned and scholarly John Quincy Adams was soundly defeated by the barely literate backwoodsman Andrew Jackson, as the moment when the American electorate decided (if not quite once and for all) that they wanted presidents more like themselves and less like old-world aristocrats. At the same time, he acknowledges that subsequent presidents, most notably Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were what today we should call “intellectuals,” and that some in the Kennedy administration, possibly including JFK himself, thought a reputation for intellect and high-class taste was part of the image that the president should project.
To my mind, that’s the real historical watershed, though a case could be made for locating it under FDR rather than JFK. At some time in the early-to-mid-20th century, in any case, we must pass from considering the president’s literary and cultural tastes, popular or otherwise, and move instead to what his spin doctors and image crafters thought would be politically beneficial for those tastes to be. In Kennedy’s case, we can now say with some confidence that he was bored by art and serious music, and had few intellectual interests of his own apart from political history. He couldn’t even sit still for a whole movie unless it was an exciting action picture. But “Kennedy and his team sensed that intellectualism would appeal to American sensibilities at the time,” according to Troy.
If so, it hasn’t done so since. By the time we get to Bill Clinton, who was Kennedy’s disciple in so many ways, it is almost impossible to tell the difference not just between him and Bono, but between what he read or watched and what he wanted people to think he read or watched. He even published a list of his 21 favorite books (reproduced on page 206)—all highbrow but not too highbrow, and including none of the “mysteries” that he also claimed to devour at the rate of three or four a week. The image projected was that of a brainiac but not quite an intellectual, scholar, or connoisseur of the arts. “Intellectualism” didn’t quite have the same cachet it had 30 years earlier.
Both Ronald Reagan and the second President Bush took an opposite tack. Though both were thought of as dim and philistine, both read a lot in private. Reagan, a “closet bookworm,” probably read more than Kennedy did, says Mr. Troy, though he didn’t publicize the fact. “Modesty may have played a part but he also may have been making a political calculation that being rugged rather than bookish would better suit the American people.” Or perhaps it just better suited the Republican base. George W. Bush, in whose administration Mr. Troy served as a deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, also read far more than the media or his political detractors were ever likely to give him credit for, although Karl Rove was allowed to be immodest on his behalf by claiming that the president had read 186 books (“mainly history and biography”) between 2005 and 2008.
About President Obama, Mr. Troy has this to say: “His great insight has been that by being part of pop culture—being a celebrity himself—a president can influence how pop culture portrays him.” This may be true, but I don’t think it could have worked if not for his being “the hippest president in history” (having presumably taken the title from Bill Clinton) and thus “cultivating an image with television as Kennedy did with books.” Also, it can hardly be right to say that “Obama likes to watch the shows of the one percent rather than the 99 percent.” Rather, he likes the shows (Homeland, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage,andThe Wire) of the people who invented the bogus cultural division between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
To turn uncharacteristically optimistic for a moment, I wonder if the whole concept of “hip,” particularly as applied to the presidency, means very much to ordinary people. It is undoubtedly a kind of pass-key to membership in the cognitive elite—those intellectual snobs and not-coincidental champions of the 99 percent who are inclined to ask, as James Taranto puts it, if you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart? Besides, it would be foolish to suppose that Americans elected such a hip president twice by accident. At the least, “hip” at the end of the 20th century and in the first decade or so of the 21st must be what a lot of people, like those WTOP announcers, want in a national leader. But I wonder if we might not yet wake up one day to find that hipness itself, like the cultural artifacts on which it pronounces its eagerly sought-after blessings, has turned out to be nothing but a fad in the end.
James Bowman, the author of Honor, A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.