Sometimes working your way through a demanding book is worth the trouble. And sometimes you get lucky. Tevi Troy’s What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted is one of those fortunate cases where sheer fun from end-to-end turns out to be edifying and important as well. Stories of Jimmy Fallon’s peculiar way of introducing Obama, or the time Ladybird Johnson stopped a network from cancelling Gunsmoke, don’t seem to add up to anything more than light entertainment. But they do. Troy turns his seemingly light-hearted history of the presidency and pop culture into a window onto America’s soul.
Take the chapter on music. How did we get from the scandal of Harry Truman playing piano with Lauren Bacall’s long legs dangling off the side to Bill Clinton’s saxophone moment on The Arsenio Hall Show? The modern transformation of our ideas about presidential dignity is tied up with the rise of “subversive” rock music and our newly politicized pop culture. Until the late-sixties, when rock went to war against Richard Nixon, American popular music had no political preference. Since then, popular music, and pop culture generally, have systematically turned against Republicans. The great exception is country music, which parallels the GOP’s rise in the South.
Troy traces out these fascinating and interwoven threads, keeping in mind Plato’s dictum that “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with it.” How do Republicans handle the challenge of a popular culture at odds with their party? Surprisingly well, all things considered, and Troy lays out both the cultural tectonics and the political coping strategies on both sides in fun and fascinating ways.
Following America’s culture war through the history of the presidency turns out to be one of the very best ways to make sense of it. It also turns out to be non-stop fun. It’s hard to believe there are many Corner readers who wouldn’t enjoy Tevi Troy’s What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted. And truth be told, Democrats will like it too.
For more, check out Kathryn Lopez’s interview with Troy, and John Miller’s podcast. Here’s Yuval Levin’s take as well.