Pop culture and presidents: Why watching ‘Breaking Bad’ is part of the job

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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March 19, 2009: Obama defended his appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” after critics expressed they felt he was wasting valuable time when he could have been fixing the economy. Yea ... maybe he should have stayed home that night.

In What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, And Obama Tweeted, Hundson Institute senior fellow Tevi Troy argues that pop culture matters a great deal in politics — and always has.

“Barack Obama…has been brilliant at using popular culture,” Troy told me during a recent discussion. “Romney made pop culture references, too — but he made them to Seinfeld and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — which were literally decades-old references…”

Pop culture matters, and it’s not just TV or movies, either. Troy reminds us that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle changed Teddy Roosevelt (and America) — and that Jimmy Carter’s disastrous “malaise” speech was also inspired by a book he read.

Troy (who previously served as an aide to President George W. Bush) even argues that “Bush probably read more history than [Jack] Kennedy.”

If that sounds absurd, it’s partly because Kennedy played up his intellectual credentials, while Bush downplayed his.  “To be fair,” Troy writes, “Bush was not blameless in acquiring a reputation for not reading.”

Here’s the backstory:

“In 1978, [Bush] ran for Congress in West Texas against Kent Hance, the conservative Democratic incumbent. Degrees from Yale and Harvard might help a politician in some parts of the country, but not where Bush was running. After he lost, he vowed “never to get out-countried again. ‘He plays up being a good ol’ boy from Midland, Texas,’ says Rove, ‘but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School.’ Playing down the Ivy League credentials helped him get elected governor of Texas and president of the United States — two times each — but the cost was being treated like a bumpkin by the media.”

(George W. Bush might have benefited from being “misunderstimated” by his adversaries, but the “bumpkin” stereotype stuck to the rest of us. To the extent conservatives are now accused of obscurantism, one wonders to what degree this was self-inflicted by past Republican presidents.)

Whether discussing Richard Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In, or Bill Clinton’s blowing the sax on The Aresenio Hall Show, Troy’s book is a fun read that chronicles 200 years of presidential pop culture.

Listen to streaming audio of my full conversation with Tevi Troy. And download the podcast on iTunes.)