Opinion

How the Hollywood presidency was born

Hudson Institute presidential historian Tevi Troy has written a highly informative and entertaining study of American culture and the presidency in What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted:  200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. “[P]residents are both shaped by the culture and shapers of it themselves,” Troy writes, as presidents react with varying success to cultural phenomena that work to either support or subvert their regimes.

Troy frames his research with a binary challenge that “has faced American presidents for nearly two centuries. Do they wish to be men of the people or men of higher understanding?” Presidents face these binary demands for reasons baked into the American founding — a democratic Constitution nonetheless designed to keep popular passions in check. “For all the talk of Americans as a common or practical people, this is nevertheless a nation founded on ideas rather than on the ties of race or religion,” Troy trenchantly observes.

Presidential success thus requires a “little John Quincy Adams to govern wisely” and “a little Andrew Jackson to get elected.” Abraham Lincoln “best married the common touch with intellectual distinction,” Troy concludes, making an “irresistibly appealing figure” due to his “combination of humble origins and prodigious learning.” In contrast, “today there is no massive monument to Jackson in the capital city, perhaps because he was too much defined by his rough and tough ways.”

Elite and common culture interacted from the very beginning of American history. “History has rarely produced such an impressive constellation of luminaries at such a critical moment,” goes the prevalent assessment affirmed by Troy, than America’s Founding Fathers “on the farthest outposts of Western civilization.” Colonial America had a “robust intellectual culture” in a society noted for literacy rates higher than Europe’s. Yet Captain Levi Preston indicated almost 70 years after fighting in 1775 that the Bible and various Christian texts along with an almanac made up the bulk of the colonists’ reading. For all the attention America’s sometimes religiously heterodox Founding Fathers receive for their erudition, America’s birth of freedom would have been stillborn absent a populist Christian touch.

American culture in the form of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s  internationally successful anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin later helped give rise to a new birth of freedom in crushing slavery and secession during the Civil War. “Stowe’s readers of the 1850s voted for Lincoln in 1860,” Troy observed, noting that the Republican Party distributed 100,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1860 campaign, “and joined his Union army during the Civil War.” Receiving Stowe at the White House a few weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, Lincoln supposedly greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!

Reflecting Plato’s classic insight into the relationship of music and mores, Troy analyzes modern influences on the presidency such as a rock and roll. Described by a 1997 documentary as a “Rock and Roll president,” Clinton’s “groundbreaking” appearance playing the saxophone on the non-news Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 campaign “violated earlier notions of presidential dignity.” Having “had the stereotypical pop-culture childhood, and then some,” Barack Obama likewise “became a rock star himself” and “developed a persona that appeals to elite opinion makers as cool … with television as Kennedy did with books.”

To succeed amidst America’s shifting cultural currents often requires mastering new technology. Both “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were “adept” radio speakers, the latter turning to airwaves as New York governor in order to bypass the state’s Republican-dominated newspapers. Yet radio failed Richard Nixon in his 1960 presidential campaign debates with John F. Kennedy when listeners considered Nixon the debate winner but television viewers rejected the appearance of a poorly-shaven Nixon in favor of the telegenic Kennedy.

Television was also the undoing of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ford’s televised “gaffe” of “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in a 1976 campaign debate with Carter was, “like a diamond … forever” and ensured President Ford’s loss in a tight race. Television would then go on to “cripple” Carter’s presidency during the Iran hostage crisis.

Former Democrat Reagan then emulated on television with his Hollywood background the radio savvy of one of Reagan’s “political heroes,” namely Roosevelt. “It is amazing how the monarchy translates so well into the television age,” Democrat Chris Matthews observed in describing the Reagan presidency’s glamorous “People magazine aspect.” Rulers and ruled alike have much to learn from Troy’s enjoyable cultural and chief executive collage.