Imagine my surprise this week when my daily paper suddenly turned into a copy of US Weekly. With a turn of the page the New York Times became the sort of celebrity magazine that dispenses trivia in order to prove that a rich, famous, and powerful person is, at heart, just like us. The luminary was Barack Obama, whose taste in television was mined by correspondent Michael D. Shear for insights into the presidential character. Shear failed to provide any, but his article was riveting nonetheless. What at first glance might be dismissed as a piece of journalistic fluff, a beat-sweetener written for the slow news days between Christmas and New Year’s, is on close examination an exercise in social positioning, an assertion of class allegiance on the part of the president and the paper.
You remember Shear. He is the same reporter who, in an interview last summer, interrupted the president to say that he, too, was aware of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam’s existence. In “Obama’s TV Picks — Anything Edgy, With Hints of Reality,” Shear reports that the president, whose “life in the Oval Office” is marked by “war, terrorism, economic struggle,” and “mass shootings,” has a taste, “in his few quiet moments,” not for situation comedy but for drama. He indulges this taste by watching copious amounts of television.
Obama, we learn, “seeks not to escape to the delicious back-stabbing of the ‘Real Housewives,’” nor to “the frivolity of the singing teens on ‘Glee,’” but to “shows like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire,’” as well as to “the DVD box set of AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad,’” Mad Men, Homeland, The Wire, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, and SportsCenter. “Friends say Obama is also awaiting the new season of the Netflix show ‘House of Cards.’” The president has the same attitude toward spoilers that he has toward leaks. He is against them. They might interfere with his viewing. “The president is way behind” on Breaking Bad, Shear writes, “and frequently reminds those around him not to give anything away.”
The problems with Shear’s exercise in psychoanalysis quickly become apparent. He makes distinctions where none ought to exist. The antics on Modern Family and Parks and Recreation are just as frivolous as “the singing teens on ‘Glee.’” Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards are filled with as much “delicious back-stabbing” as any episode of Real Housewives. The dramas the president favors are soap operas with sophisticated vocabularies. Left unmentioned is the difference between the shows Shears pooh-poohs and the shows Obama watches. It is the same difference between a juicer bought at Walmart and one bought at Williams-Sonoma: The latter is a luxury good. It takes cash to afford the cable connections, premium channels, and Netflix subscriptions required to watch all of the titles on the president’s viewing list. It is also necessary to have leisure time, which, disturbingly, the president seems to have a lot of. No wonder he finds out about everything from the newspapers.
Shear clearly had a thesis in mind when he sat down to write. His article is an argument in search of evidence. He seems to think Obama’s taste in television reveals a tragic sense of life, a Niebuhrian realism that informs the administration’s domestic and international agenda. Shows that undermine this idea, such as sports and comedies, are downplayed. Dramas with antiheroes, violence, conspiracies, and sex are emphasized.
“It may be ‘Homeland’ that offers the most interesting insight into Obama’s downtime preferences,” Shear says. Homeland is a Showtime series about an insane CIA agent pursuing an Islamic sleeper cell. The show is just as violent and ridiculous as 24, but lacks the “let’s roll” ethos that imbued the background of the earlier series. For Shear, however, this increasingly absurd program stands for much more. “‘Homeland,’” he writes in a wonderful example of cliché, “reveals the hidden dangers in a complicated world.” It is also “subtle, presenting choices that are rarely easy and never cost-free.” Complicated, subtle, rarely easy, never cost-free — do these adjectives call to mind the reputation of a certain head of state? “It is not unlike the phrase Obama often uses with his advisers: ‘Hard things are hard.’” And dumb things are dumb.
I know plenty of conservatives whose favorite shows are the same as the president’s. Their enjoyment of a piece of entertainment has little to do with its politics — probably because so few entertainments and entertainers share their politics. It is therefore fantastic to suggest, as Shear does, that the images and sounds emanating from our televisions are connected to, indeed give birth to, the policy agendas we read about in his paper. He has David Simon, the creator of The Wire, make a cameo appearance in a paragraph implying that an HBO series from years ago may have shaken President Obama out of complacency on the issue of income inequality. The thought insults not only our intelligence but also Obama’s. That Obama has called The Wire “one of the greatest shows of our time” means nothing more than that he agrees with a commonplace opinion. And if that commonplace opinion is the cause of the president’s half-hearted campaign to increase the minimum wage, well, we are in direr straights than I had thought.
Shear is aware of how silly he sounds. “It may be a fool’s errand,” he writes, “to psychoanalyze anyone — let alone a sitting president — based only on the books he reads or the music he listens to, or the television shows he watches.” That has not stopped the Times from engaging in such a fool’s errand twice in one month. Earlier in December, Shear’s colleague Peter Baker wrote a piece that said Obama’s taste in books reflected his “journey” from Punahou to the White House. Yet the titles Baker mentioned were not unique to the president. They were trendy literary fiction, books discussed in the Times Book Review, books carrying blurbs from Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Safran Foer. How much do such books, about Chechen immigrants or New York cricket players, reveal of the character of their readers, other than the fact that those readers are the sort of people who know the author of the moment, the books on the prize lists, the aggrieved minority or former British colony that happens to be in fashion?