September 18, 2013
Mitt Romney’s iPod playlist featured Johnny Cash, Frankie Valli, the Beach Boys and the Soggy Bottom Boys. Barack Obama’s iPod had, the president assured his fans, something for everyone — “Stevie Wonder, James Brown. I’ve got Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan,” Obama said. “And then I’ve got everything from Jay-Z to Eminem to the Fugees, to — you name it.”
This pop cultural posturing isn’t new, as historian Tevi Troy chronicles in a highly entertaining survey of how American presidents have consumed and affected pop culture: “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted”.
In a democratic republic, successful politicians are usually those with the common touch. Our current “cool” president is clearly adept at this politician’s art, though some may be wondering, as he struggles to put a foot right in the second term, whether he has mastered other aspects of the job — congressional relations, domestic policy, foreign affairs, that sort of thing.
It’s difficult to imagine what the Founders would have made of a president of the United States endorsing the expletive-laden lyrics of Jay-Z and Eminem. Jefferson and Adams could read Latin and Greek and discourse knowledgably about Blackstone, Locke and Montesquieu — and they did, in a correspondence that brightened the final 14 years their lives, until they died within hours of each other, on July 4, 1926, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
John Quincy Adams’s intellect may have been even more dazzling than his father’s. David McCullough called him “maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office.” Troy writes, “As president he enjoyed poetry, literature, theater, opera, and translating Latin texts.” The man who unseated him was uncouth had read very little, and even made embarrassing spelling errors. But Andrew Jackson, like many who would follow him, knew how to turn his apparent simplicity into a political asset. When students at Harvard addressed him in Latin, he replied, “I shall have to speak in English. … The only Latin I know is E Pluribus Unum.”
Post-Jackson presidents were careful to wear their erudition lightly or to leaven it with manly display. Lincoln was one of the finest writers in American history (not just the best among presidents), yet he appealed to voters with folksy stories. Teddy Roosevelt, who published his first book the year he graduated from Harvard, burnished his image as an outdoorsman, hunter and adventurer. Actually, the word “image” is misleading, because it was authentic with Roosevelt. He really did become a rancher in the Dakota Territory, a boxer, a colonel, a naturalist and an explorer. The boy who had been a weak asthmatic grew to be a man who flattened a bully in a Montana bar: “As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out and then again with my right.”
Roosevelt was probably the last Republican to be well-treated by writers, artists, actors and other cultural arbiters. (Only country music remains a Republican redoubt.)
Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, popular culture has become an arm of the Democratic Party. Troy quotes a 1930s Harper’s piece in which Richard Sheridan Ames saw the future: “What if Hollywood decides to convert the nation to any of its principles? It has the money, the studios, the talent. It controls the major theaters and can command the best advertising media.”
Often, as Troy shows, they’ve conspired with Democratic politicians to concoct historical cotton candy. John F. Kennedy, patron of the arts? Troy notes that JFK had no idea who Pablo Casals was before Mrs. Kennedy invited him to the White House. The peripatetic Kennedy didn’t read much. Ben Bradlee recalled that even Kennedy’s supposed addiction to James Bond novels (hardly high brow) was a “publicity gag.” As for the book for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, “Profiles in Courage,” Troy quotes Garry Wills: Kennedy didn’t so much “author” the book as “authorize it.”
As pop culture has grown ever more vulgar, politicians have tended to plant themselves either in opposition to it (think Romney’s iPod) or in support. Bill Clinton played the sax on the Arsenio Hall show and talked about his choice of underwear. George W. Bush was dismissive of TV, telling The Los Angeles Times in 2005 that he had never seen the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Desperate Housewives or Saturday Night Live’s parody of his daughters.
“They put an off button on the TV for a reason,” he said.
However biased and low, pop culture affects politics. Accordingly, it’s not safe for any politician to turn it off completely.