Presidents and our ‘Common’ culture

President Obama’s recent troubles with the visit of the controversial rapper Common to the White House may demonstrate bad judgment on the part of the White House, but Obama is hardly the first president to have to navigate the difficult waters of dealing with notorious and mercurial entertainers.

President Eisenhower, for example, forbid White House projectionist Paul Fisher from showing films with the actor Robert Mitchum because of Mitchum’s conviction for marijuana possession. Eisenhower took this ban quite seriously. When Fisher tried to sneak a Mitchum film by Ike, the president stood up and walked out.

Pop culture was in its infancy during the Eisenhower administration, and it soon became clear that Eisenhower was trying to live up to an impossible standard. If presidents refused to deal with cultural figures who had histories of drug use, few entertainers would ever enter the White House. But over time, standards evolved to where White Houses would try to avoid individuals whose behavior or comments were outrageous, or where they had been critical of the sitting president. Even this revised standard, however, is hard to maintain, especially when dealing with artists, who like to shock and are representatives of what Lionel Trilling called the “adversary culture.”

Lyndon Johnson ran into this problem when he tried to hold a White House Festival of the Arts in 1965. This event, organized by former Princeton professor Eric Goldman, was intended to boost Johnson’s reputation among the intelligentsia, but ended up being a disaster. At the time, protests against Johnson’s Vietnam policies were heating up in the arts world, and poet Robert Lowell noisily pulled out of the conference, which angered Johnson and his aides. New Yorker writer Dwight MacDonald did attend, but used the opportunity to circulate a petition supporting Lowell. Charlton Heston, when asked to sign, upbraided MacDonald, telling him that “having convictions doesn’t mean that you have to lack elementary manners. Are you really accustomed to signing petitions against your host in his home?”

Despite Heston’s efforts, the festival was a public relations failure for Johnson, especially after MacDonald wrote a devastating piece calling out Goldman as some kind of cultural traitor for serving in the Johnson White House: “Poor Dr. Goldman, caught like Polonius (‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’) between the fell and incensed points of mighty antagonists.” Lady Bird Johnson, who had signed off on the concept of the festival as “an excellent idea,” later referred to the day of the festival in her diary as “Black Tuesday.” Perhaps it is unsurprising that in 2003 the George W. Bush White House cancelled a poetry festival that Mrs. Bush had tried to organize for fear of an anti-war protest developing.

Despite increased divergences between the norms of the pop-culture world and the more conventional tastes of what Richard Nixon called the “silent majority” of Americans, no president can afford to ignore popular culture. It is one of the few unifying forces in a country as large and diverse as ours. Even someone as culturally unhip as Nixon saw fit to meet with the musical icon Elvis Presley in 1970. Presley wanted Nixon to dub him “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. According to Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh, Presley told Nixon that “he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit.” Nixon’s cultural commentary included the observation that “those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest.” Nixon also agreed to give Elvis a badge, which he received while at lunch in the White House Mess with Krogh.