Politics & Policy

#POTUS and Pop Culture

Presidents at libraries, in theaters, and in 140 characters or less.

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.

LOPEZ: Would bloggers be calling Abraham Lincoln out today for lying about Robinson Crusoe?

TROY: Lincoln read obsessively as a youth, but had a limited number of choices because of his poor and rural childhood. This led to Lincoln’s rereading of the books that were available to him. Most scholars agree that the works he reread included the Bible, Parson Weems’s Life of Washington, Aesop’s fables, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, and A History of the United States. Later in life, Lincoln continued to read but had little interest in novels. At one point he said, “It may seem somewhat strange to say, but I never read an entire novel in my life.” Given that we know he read Robinson Crusoe, and that one could argue that Pilgrim’s Progress counts as a novel, the blanket denial of reading any novel seems to have been an overstatement. In our day, an overzealous blogger would have called Lincoln out on this discrepancy, but I think we can give Honest Abe a break on this one, especially given all of his other accomplishments.

LOPEZ: Could Aesop’s Fables help politicians (and all of us) communicate better?

TROY: Each of those books that Lincoln reread taught him lessons that would serve him well later in life. From Aesop he learned the artful use of anecdotes to make a point. From the Bible and Shakespeare, he learned a common but elevated language. And from Weems he gained an appreciation of how a leader can capture his people’s hearts. But one has to be careful not to overstate this. If you take a hundred, or a thousand, or even a million people, and had them read the Bible, Shakespeare, Aesop, and Weems, over and over and over again, it wouldn’t make another Lincoln.

LOPEZ: Was Theodore Roosevelt rude about his love for books?

TROY: Roosevelt was not rude so much as he was obsessed with reading. A number of biographers have described his relationship with books in animalistic terms, that he had a hunger for reading. As a young child, he would drag David Livingstone’s 600-page Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa to adults and ask them to “tell” the pictures to him. As an adult, dull conversationalists might find that President Roosevelt would pick up a book if guests did not grab his attention. On a train one night after his presidency, Roosevelt went missing. He was found in the lavatory straining to read W. E. H. Lecky’s History of Rationalism in Europe by the only available light. All of these anecdotes could be considered examples of rudeness, but it’s a misleading characterization. His constant reading opened up worlds of information that served him well in his rapid ascent from New York City police commissioner to assistant secretary of the Navy to governor of New York to vice president and then president — all within less than six years.

LOPEZ: Did the radio really elect Silent Cal?

TROY: Despite his quiet reputation, Calvin Coolidge was quite adept at speaking to the people over the airwaves. Literary Digest even suggested that “radio re-elected Calvin Coolidge” in 1924. By his own reckoning, Coolidge had a pretty good radio voice, and he also started the tradition of regular presidential addresses to the American people, preparing the way for Franklin Roosevelt and his famous “fireside chats.”

LOPEZ: Is there a secret truth about JFK and the arts?

TROY: Yes, the secret truth is that he was not nearly as interested in the arts as his staff tried to tell us he was. At the famous Pablo Casals dinner at the White House in 1961, the social secretary had to leave Kennedy handwritten notes to let him know when to applaud at a classical-music performance. He lacked the patience for sitting through movies, and was more interested in the starlets in person than on the screen. And even his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Profiles in Courage appears to have been ghost-written by Ted Sorensen.

LOPEZ: What would his beef have been with the Camelot references that would come?

TROY: It is not at all clear that he liked the Camelot record that much or that he would have embraced Camelot as a metaphor for his administration. Arthur Schlesinger wrote that “during [JFK’s] lifetime no one spoke of Kennedy’s Washington as Camelot.” And if anyone had done so, “no one would have been more derisive than JFK.” Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, revealed that Kennedy’s favorite song was ‘Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?’”

LOPEZ: How was Eisenhower’s use of television revolutionary?

TROY: JFK gets a lot of deserved credit for his mastery of television, but Eisenhower deserves some credit on this front as well. Eisenhower had to confront TV before Kennedy, and unlike Kennedy, he did not have a model TV presidency preceding him. His presidential “firsts” include the first televised press conferences and cabinet meetings, as well as the use of an outside consultant with TV expertise. Subsequent presidents may have been better on television, but Eisenhower created the roadmap for other presidents to follow.

LOPEZ: Why would Ronald Reagan “conceal” what he was reading?

TROY: Reagan did read a lot more than people give him credit for, but he did not advertise it as Kennedy or Obama did. At one point, his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater suggested that he could let the media know that Reagan was reading some recent nonfiction. Reagan declined — “No, Marlin, I don’t think we need to do that” — perhaps out of general modesty, or perhaps out of concern that the liberal press would mock him for reading as they did later with George W. Bush.

LOPEZ: Speaking of that, how is W’s reading misunderstood?

TROY: Bush 43’s reading was actually misunderstood twice. In the 2000 campaign, a number of analysts just flat out asserted, with no evidence to back up their claims, that Bush did not read books. Once he was president, and it became clear that he was not only a reader but a prolific one, some liberal analysts dismissed his book selections as evidence of narrowness, or suggested that he read books to support his own preconceptions. The truth is that he is a wide-ranging and curious reader. He loves history and biography, and as president constantly made references to what he was reading.

LOPEZ: What was your most fascinating find?

TROY: There were a whole bunch of great finds, but I didn’t realize quite how expensive books were for the Founding Fathers, which made me respect the breadth of their reading even more.

LOPEZ: How does a president work through the Phil Dunphy law?

TROY: I have a section at the end called “Rules for Presidents Engaging Pop Culture.” In that section I describe the Phil Dunphy law as follows: “American culture moves fast. A president can be cool for only so long.” President Obama definitely had some kind of cool factor going into the 2008 race, but in 2012, by his own admission, he had become less cool. It’s hard to be a politician and remain cool, and I’m not even sure it’s necessary. Madonna can continually reinvent herself over a three-decade period, but a politician can rarely afford to change that much.

LOPEZ: Your book seems like a fun one for a bookworm to read, never mind write. What gave you the most satisfaction?

TROY: The realization that for over 200 years, our presidents, great and small, have been just like everyone else in having to make choices about how to consume information and entertainment in their limited leisure time. These choices define us when we make them, and they define our leaders as well.

LOPEZ: What’s your “Prime Directive”? People don’t seem to read beyond 140 characters. 

TROY: Pop culture is a powerful tool, and presidents benefit from being aware of it, but they should be careful not to get too caught up in it. There you go, and it was only 137 characters.


Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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