Do American presidents watch the same TV shows and movies that we do? A new book looks inside the White House to answer fascinating questions about presidents and pop culture.
Dr. Tevi Troy, a high-ranking policy adviser in the Bush 43 White House who later became deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, has written "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Pop Culture in the White House," a wonderfully sourced exploration of how pop culture has shaped the presidency, and how American presidents themselves returned the favor.
"I was surprised at just how influential culture has been on almost every administration, from Teddy Roosevelt reading two to three books a day in the White House, to Carter seeing 480 movies as president, to President Obama continuing to watch a lot of television in the White House residence," Troy told me.
Troy is uniquely positioned to write this book, the rare presidential historian who also observed the presidency from the inside. Having worked on both sides of the window, Troy captures insights that might be lost on writers who lack his broad experience.
A fascinating political point about presidents and pop culture is the constant push-and-pull of how they try to use cultural references to connect with the American people without looking ridiculous. In one humorous passage Troy details President Barack Obama's discussions of Snooki, a character on the reality TV series "Jersey Shore." He went from mentioning her in his White House Correspondents' Dinner speech to telling a daytime talk show that he didn't really know who she was. Mitt Romney, for his part, professed himself a "Snooki fan."
The question for both men was whether mentioning Snooki could be perceived as beneath the dignity of the Office of the President. Both decided it was worth the risk, although it is hard to imagine either of them watching Snooki and her empty-headed running buddies have conversations that must seem like a foreign language to a great many Americans.
This book will spawn an interesting discussion of whether Democratic or Republican presidents better keep up with pop culture. Troy told me that "Obama and Clinton were big consumers of culture, [but] both Bushes needed more briefing from staff on popular culture." In 2016, the Republican presidential field looks decidedly younger than the Democratic so perhaps the GOP will close the recent gap.
Troy points out that President George H. W. Bush's reported befuddlement about a supermarket price scanner crafted an out-of-touch image that contributed to his defeat in 1992. It is virtually impossible to keep up with normal, everyday stuff when you are trapped in the bubble of security and staff that surrounds the president; the commander-in-chief just doesn't do his own grocery shopping. If you were reasonably up on American culture the day you got elected, count on being decidedly not cool when you leave office four or eight years later.
The dominant medium for most people alive today — television — gets a fascinating examination. The passages detailing Richard Nixon's rollercoaster relationship with television illustrate a politician who correctly understood the power of the medium but ultimately failed to control it as his image was destroyed. TV saved Nixon in 1952, destroyed him in 1960, saved him again in 1968, and then destroyed him again during Watergate and beyond. On Nixon's rocky relationship with television journalists, Troy writes: "Nixon's experience also serves as a reminder to politicians that journalists are the only people on the planet more sensitive to criticism than the politicians themselves."
For the professional (or armchair) political operative, Troy's appendix "Rules for President's Engaging in Pop Culture" provides a set of lessons 2016 candidates ought to study. On what Troy calls "Ford's law," he says "comedians are more dangerous than producers or reporters."
It's remarkable how much pop culture and technology changes in four or eight years. President George W. Bush didn't send an email in the White House (although he joked with staff at his presidential library opening earlier this year that he looked forward to reading all of ours). President Obama famously carries around an iPad. How the next batch of presidential candidates deals with changes in the pop culture marketplace will be interesting to say the least.
Take television, for instance — a recent article in the Los Angeles Times details a report by analyst Todd Juenger who believes that by 2015 over half of all television viewing will be done by people over the age of 50. Jon Steinberg, the head of Buzzfeed, a popular news and social content website, says that no new television viewers or newspaper subscribers are being born in America.
How do future presidential candidates reach younger people for whom television ads simply aren't a thing? Troy's book spurs important discussion about such questions as we approach the 2016 election.
For the political junkie, the pages in this book won't turn fast enough. For those interested in how the menu for consuming culture has exploded from basically just books and theater in the time of Washington to unlimited multimedia offerings today, the book is equally as satisfying.