Presidents and our ‘Common’ culture

Tevi Troy Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
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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.

Ironically, given Presley’s request, many observers feel that Elvis appears stoned in the picture of the two standing together. The picture became the most frequently requested document from the National Archives. At other times, the White House screening mechanism was more rigorous regarding drug users. Former Jefferson Airplane star Grace Slick recently told The Wall Street Journal of the time she was invited to the White House for a reunion of attendees of Finch College, the alma mater of both Slick and Nixon’s daughter Patricia. Slick was invited as an alumnus under her given name of Grace Wing, and decided to bring Abbie Hoffman as her date. The two planned to slip acid into the president’s tea, but an alert Secret Service guard barred them from entering, telling the pair that “We checked and you’re a security risk.”

In more recent years, the White House screening and vetting processes have become so rigorous that it is hard to get someone with a questionable background past the Secret Service, and aides use comprehensive database services to avoid honoring or inviting individuals who could create controversy. Still, as we have seen, sometimes those in the White House orbit will refer to pop-culture controversies in order to make a point. In May of 1992, Dan Quayle criticized the fictional character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock, and calling it just another “life-style choice.” Not long after, his boss George H.W. Bush also had a foray into cultural criticism, denouncing Ice T’s “Cop Killer” — although not directly — by calling it “sick” and declaring it “wrong for any company to issue records that approve of killing law enforcement officers.”

Of the two, Quayle’s comments made a bigger splash. The vice president was pilloried at the time for being judgmental and for going after a fictional character, but he was later vindicated by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s Atlantic cover declaring that “Dan Quayle Was Right.” Quayle may have been right, but by the time of the Atlantic story, he was a private citizen, as he and Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. Around the same time, in June of 1992, Clinton went out of his way to criticize Sister Souljah’s comment that “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton took a hit from Jesse Jackson for his comments, but the now-famous “Sister Souljah moment” indicated a degree of cultural moderation on Clinton’s part that helped him secure the White House that fall.

George W. Bush for the most part avoided commenting on pop-culture issues, recognizing how unpopular he was among the entertainment elites. There was no shortage of stars denouncing Bush during his presidency — including, among many others, the Dixie Chicks (who were “ashamed” Bush was president), Martin Sheen (who called Bush a moron), and Jessica Lange (who said, “I hate Bush”). Bush wisely avoided exchanging fire with these critics. Even the attack that he later called “the worst moment of my presidency” — Kanye West’s saying “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — went unanswered by the president until well after Bush had left the White House.

Bush, as a Republican, was quite distant from our pop culture and more easily able to avoid these kinds of controversies entering the White House. He could not control what people in the entertainment world said about him, but his staff could and did keep hostile entertainers away from the president and the White House. Obama, in contrast, is much closer to the entertainment world and more of a product of our popular culture. While Bush once told David Axelrod “I don’t watch television,” Obama’s memoir indicates how important TV was in his grandparents’ Hawaii household. Obama also has a subversive streak, declaring at one point that the gay homicidal renegade Omar on “The Wire” was his favorite character on the show. (He did, however, clarify, that it was not an endorsement of the character.) But Obama’s closeness to the pop-culture world is what makes him more vulnerable to a Common-type controversy. Celebrating entertainers makes it more likely that one’s aides and screeners will overlook their flaws in order to bask in their celebrity glow. While it is unrealistic that any president can or should return to an Eisenhower-type standard for dealing with entertainers, Obama needs to heed the lessons of his predecessors and be aware that pop-culture proclivities can mean trouble for a president, trouble that is usually best avoided.

Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior White House aide. He is the author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency.