#POTUS and Pop Culture
Presidents at libraries, in theaters, and in 140 characters or less.

Tevi Troy


FDR took 50 detective stories with him to the Tehran conference with Churchill and Stalin in 1943. Ike’s granddaughter Anne would get under the former president’s skin by playing certain songs — especially “Runaway” by Del Shannon — again and again on a tiny player.

These facts will not be lost to popular history, thanks to Tevi Troy’s new book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted, which tells the story of how culture and media have shaped the presidents and how the presidency influences them. Troy talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the books, shows, tweets, and more.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What does Thomas Paine’s Common Sense have to do with The Bridges of Madison County?

TEVI TROY: Not much from a content perspective, but a lot from a sales perspective. Common Sense was a major best-seller in its time. In the period between its publication on January 10, 1776, and the end of March of that year, it sold over 100,000 copies — one for every 25 residents. The equivalent today would be 12.5 million copies, a figure that puts Common Sense — a work of political philosophy — in league with The Bridges of Madison County, as well as Dune and Peyton Place.

LOPEZ: Was Thomas Jefferson a good or bad influence on fellow Founders?

TROY: I agree with Joseph Ellis’s depiction of Jefferson as an American sphinx who can be very hard to read. But one area in which he was an unambiguously good influence on the Founders and on his fellow countrymen was in his love of books. Jefferson famously said, “I cannot live without books,” and he lived accordingly. He collected thousands of books at a time when it was extremely expensive to do so. A new edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776 cost about as much as an iPad costs today. And an iPad can store about 80,000 books. Jefferson was competitive with his fellow bibliophile John Adams about how much they read, and once, in response to Adams’s prodigious reading, even complained ,“Dear Sir, how I envy you.” Most important, perhaps, when James Madison asked Jefferson to suggest some books on effective systems of government, Jefferson sent him two trunks of books that Madison then read in preparation for his participation in the Constitutional Convention.

LOPEZ: Why was James Monroe’s attendance at a play called Alberti significant?

TROY: In 1817, Monroe saw Alberti while on a goodwill tour of Charleston, S.C. The play itself is not that memorable — a Romeo-and-Juliet type drama about Florentine lovers kept apart by hatred between their fathers. But the author of the play was Isaac Harby, a Jewish playwright and religious reformer. I have checked this with a number of experts on 19th-century theater and on Jewish history, and it seems that Monroe’s attendance at this particular performance was almost certainly the first encounter of a U.S. president with a fictional work by an American Jewish author. Nowadays this may not seem like such a big deal, especially since the work of Jewish authors is so prevalent in Hollywood and on Broadway, but it was far less usual at the time.

LOPEZ: Did it have anything distinctly Jewish about it?

TROY: The play was not distinctly Jewish, and probably would not have done that well at that time if it had been so.

LOPEZ: Who liked Shakespeare the most? Did it show?

TROY: Many presidents have liked Shakespeare, including John Tyler. Tyler would often quote or allude to Shakespeare in his speeches, and it was a time when the American people understood such references. In 1855, after he had moved on from the presidency to the role of “well-read elder statesman,” he gave an important speech on slavery and secessionism to the Maryland Institute. In the speech, he took an adamant stand against secession, doubting that “a people so favored by heaven” would “throw away a pearl richer than all the tribe,” a line which comes from Othello.

Lincoln was also a fan of Shakespeare, but he came from a poorer background than Tyler — Tyler’s dad roomed with Jefferson at William and Mary — and so Lincoln was far more familiar with Shakespeare on the page than on the stage. Still, he loved Macbeth, and once wrote, “I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.”

LOPEZ: Does James Polk teach us that workaholics need not apply to the presidency?

TROY: Perhaps he teaches the opposite. Polk was our only president to say he was going to serve one term and then do so, in the process accomplishing all three goals he laid out for his administration. He did this in part by working extremely hard. He did not take vacations and he instructed his cabinet not to do so, either. Unsurprisingly, he made little time for outside entertainment. He attended the theater only once in his life, and stayed for only half an hour. All this work came at a cost, though. He died not long after finishing his single term, perhaps from overwork.


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