Some presidents are well known for having a relationship with pop culture — everyone knows Ronald Reagan was a movie star. When they're not busy being the leaders of the free world, American presidents have also found the time to consume pop culture – books, theater, television, radio, and film – and often used it to their political advantage. Tevi Troy's "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Pop Culture in the White House" is a trivia-filled survey of how pop culture affected the presidents and presidents affected pop culture. Troy, a presidential historian who worked in the George W. Bush White House, talked to U.S. News about Abraham Lincoln's reading habits, Jimmy Carter's film watching and the Obamas' relationship with rap music.
Some presidents are well known for having a relationship with pop culture — everyone knows Ronald Reagan was a movie star. What were some of the more surprising examples that you studied for your book?
I had no idea that Jimmy Carter was such a movie fan and that he saw 480 movies as president. He said he hadn't seen many movies on the campaign trail and when [he] started [his presidential term], he realized he had this great perk of the White House movie theater. He asked Gerald Rafshoon, who was one of his communications aides, to come up with a list of the movies they needed to catch up on. So they started this movie club effectively, and they watched movies relentlessly for four years.
How did the literary culture of the Revolutionary era influence the Founding Fathers?
Back then you could either read a book or you could go to a live performance. Now, obviously there's an unlimited panoply of options. So when you have a society where reading was one of the few choices, more people read and [were] taking reading seriously. You also had a particularly literate group of people who were the founders. It was expensive to collect books – Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" in 1776 in the colonies would have cost about what an iPad costs us today. Even though it was expensive, you had guys like [Thomas] Jefferson, [John] Adams – even [George] Washington had a 900 book library – who read books, took them seriously, discussed their ideas, used them to frame the arguments for revolution against England. How was Lincoln's relationship with books different than presidents before him? Lincoln came from pretty humble origins, and most, if not all the presidents were from richer or better connected homes. It was the power of his reading that helped break him out of the little world that he was in – a motherless boy in a poor, rural area. He used reading to counter his ideas and develop his thinking, and he was a very forceful reader. But he also recognized – in the same ways that Andrew Jackson did – that you needed to appeal to the common man, the people. Going out and making erudite literary references wasn't going to help get you elected president. So while the power of his ideas was developed through reading, when he spoke he actually didn't use literary references.
Franklin Roosevelt wasn't the first president to use radio. What did FDR do that made him such a pioneer on that front?
People talk about FDR and the fireside chats, but FDR understood the power of radio before he became president. In many ways, it was his understanding of radio that helped him become president. At the 1924 and '28 Democratic conventions he gave speeches that he knew would be broadcast on radio and he spoke not to the hall but to the larger audience out there. Once he was president, he was revolutionary in the use of these fireside chats. We think he must have been doing them all the time. But he carefully marshaled these fireside chats – only doing two or three a year – and was worried about over exposure. In fact he thought [Winston] Churchill appeared on the radio too often. He also had a series of tricks that he would use. He would whistle slightly when he spoke, [so] he put a false tooth in so he wouldn't whistle on the radio. He also used a special paper that didn't rustle when you shuffled the pages around, so the American people wouldn't hear him rustling paper and they would think he was speaking off the cuff. And he also was adamant about the use of common language – not using big words, not using complex sentences, speaking directly to the people.
JFK is often considered the first television president but you call Eisenhower a TV "revolutionary." Why?
Eisenhower recognized the power of TV and he did press conferences before JFK did. (Although, he didn't do them live. He was willing to have them edited.) He had a TV adviser, Robert Montgomery, who was an actor, and he helped Eisenhower understand how to use television. [Eisenhower] also understood the power of TV as a form of entertainment. Then and now, you have high brow folks saying that TV is the idiot box or a low brow kind of entertainment. But he understood that it was [a] uniquely American expression and that it was a great way to show the creativity of the American people and the American [entertainment] industry. So he liked the industry and what they were producing.
Michelle Obama just announced a rap album that will be part of her anti-obesity campaign. How does that fit in the President Obama's pop culture reputation?
The Obamas are the first couple to welcome rap into the White House. For a long time rock and roll was seen as subversive and [Bill] Clinton gave it a blessing, especially with the Fleetwood Mac song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." He brought rock stars into the White House. But even then, rap wasn't seen as OK. The Republicans criticized "Cop Killer" in the '92 race and people forget, but Clinton's "Sister Souljah moment" was against someone who at the time considered herself a rapper. But the Obamas have in some ways given rap the presidential blessing. As always with these things, it's a double edge sword. You can say rap's OK, but you're always going to have someone who says problematic things, like Common, who they invited to that poetry [event] at the White House. Some people read the lyrics of his songs and the critics weren't so happy with it.
Everyone talks about Obama being so plugged into pop culture as being a strength. Is there a time when that's a disadvantage?
You can be seen as less serious, if you're too obsessed with pop culture. You can sometimes make a misstep, as Obama did at a press conference when he called something as a "Jedi mind meld" [conflating the Jedi mind trick of "Star Wars" with the Vulcan mind meld of "Star Trek"]. So the guy clearly knows a lot about pop culture, but he was criticized for confusing the two – obviously not in a devastating or really horrible way – because people have such high expectations of his knowledge of pop culture.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]