200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House

In the era of Kindles, tweets, Facebook and instant celebrity how should presidents act? “Are we really better off with a president who knows who Snooki is?”, asks Tevi Troy in his insightful book What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted.

Do (presidents) wish to be men of the people or men of higher understanding? Which trait is more helpful for getting elected? Which trait is more helpful for governing? Or can the president simultaneously master both qualities? If he can, how does a president communicate his connection to a partially shared popular culture while also communicating that he has the character to hold the highest office in the land?

Responses to this question are as varied as the personalities of the people who get elected and the times in which they lived.

How he conceives of himself and popular culture reveals something about the president’s intellectual interests, mental discipline, and preparation for the presidency. How a president engages popular culture also tell us about the people who elected him, the changing nature of American politics and society, and the tension between high-, low-, and middle-brow pursuits.

The man who seemingly kept the right distance between himself and the people—that is, not too far and not too close—was Abraham Lincoln.

He wanted to connect, and he wanted to achieve. Obsessed with books and himself the author of some of the noblest rhetoric in the English language, he never lost sight of the need to appeal to the common man in his earnest work.

The first presidents had few options. Cultural pursuits were limited to books and theater.

Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among the best-read men on the entire continent. Jefferson, whose personal collection of books became the foundation of the Library of Congress, famously said “I cannot live without books.”

Today presidents have more cultural options than ever before—books, magazines, movies, television, music, Internet, radio, video-games, and brands.

Whether it is Jimmy Carter watching more than four hundred movies in the White House cinema or Barack Obama telling people that the flamboyant killer Omar on HBO’s The Wire is his favorite character, it is clear that presidents are taking advantage of cultural reference points to communicate to the American public. And (in so doing) they occasionally reveal something important about themselves.

Not all cultural pursuits are the same — there is a difference between entertainment and intellectual pursuits. “The lines between them,” Tory writes, “are not always easily drawn—the most successful presidents have been at home in both worlds.”

Technology has multiplied both how we communicate and how we consume. If a president is too forward leaning he risks being viewed as out of touch. The same with being too far behind. And there is nothing a politician wants less than to be seen as out of touch.

Electing someone requires that we believe they are ready for the times.

The leader of a free and democratic nation must appear to be engaged in his country’s culture, but he must do so without letting the coarseness and vulgarity of that culture diminish himself or his office. A further problem is that it becomes difficult to form good leaders in a culture of the sensational, the outrageous, and the vulgar. Too many of today’s leaders make us wistful for the generation of the Founding Fathers. Although they lived on the farthest outposts of Western civilization, their formation in the classics, history, and Enlightenment philosophy ensured that they had studied the great questions of human freedom and the just society.

The intellectual pursuits of today’s presidents are arguably more difficult than ever. Earlier presidents weren’t exposed to as many forms of popular culture. Nor did they exist in a world that demanded they were always on camera with soundbites at the ready. Yet the presidency has become culturally more important than ever because it is now one of the few cultural touchstones we all share.

What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted explores how presidents have consumed culture—from the theater-going Lincoln to the movie-making Reagan—and “how those pursuits have in turn shaped them and the nation.”