Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

POTUS and Circuses

What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House, by Tevi Troy (Regnery, 332 pp., $18.95)

When Chris Christie was asked how he could simultaneously love Bruce Springsteen’s music and hate his politics, he famously responded: “I compartmentalize.”

Conservatives who don’t want to limit their pop-culture diet to Kid Rock and Meat Loaf have to do a lot of compartmentalization these days. For instance, before a dinner with a leading congressional Republican a few months ago, National Review publisher Jack Fowler was — as he is wont to do — singing under his breath; and he seemed surprised when I let him know that “To the left, to the left” is from a Beyoncé song. Now, nobody doesn’t like Beyoncé: It’s science. But many people, while enjoying her music, aren’t huge fans of the Grammy-winning singer’s political proclivities.

Something is wrong with you if you don’t at least sort of love “Love on Top”; and something was (probably) wrong with Beyoncé when, in a rare breach of her legendary social-media decorum, she posted a handwritten note to her Tumblr saying “TAKE THAT MITCHES” on election night. The post disappeared shortly after, but still. Compartmentalize, compartmentalize, compartmentalize.

While it’s no secret that Republicans’ relationship with pop culture is a little fraught, the behavior of Democrats’ celebrity supporters sometimes raises questions as to whether they may be doing the Democrats more harm than good. In this new book, Tevi Troy, a presidential historian and alumnus of the George W. Bush administration, explores the fascinating, messy, and often amusing connections between presidents and pop culture.

In the process, Troy has probably written the unsexiest pop-culture book imaginable — and that’s not a bad thing. He seems to have limited interest in appealing to readers’ lesser angels. The book is straightforward and linear, with extensive notes. Condensing a 200-year narrative into just about 250 pages of text isn’t an easy feat, but Troy succeeds admirably. The book is an entertaining refresher course on the personalities who have filled the White House. Think of it as beach reading for nerds, more U.S. News & World Report than Us Weekly.

That’s not to say the book is sterile. It’s sprinkled with little micro-scandals that you probably didn’t know about unless you were an American-studies major or once got locked in the Smithsonian. For instance, Troy details the national eyebrow-raising that happened when, as vice president, Harry Truman played piano for servicemen “with a young Lauren Bacall perched on top of the piano dangling her long legs.” It’s a far cry from Katy Perry in a minidress, but it caused quite a stir — from Troy’s description, probably more of a controversy than was occasioned by any of President Obama’s interactions with starlets — and the man who would soon drop two nuclear bombs was reduced to complaining that “I couldn’t be Harry Truman and vice president at the same time.”

Troy draws out some of the interesting tensions that present themselves as soon as the worlds of entertainment and policymaking start to intertwine. “The leader of a free and democratic nation must appear to be engaged in his country’s culture,” Troy writes, “but he must do so without letting the coarseness and vulgarity of that culture diminish himself or his office.” Readers are largely on their own to determine whether or not the interactions Troy chronicles have sullied the presidency; Troy keeps his editorializing to a minimum.

For instance, he alludes to American cultural decline, and suggests that it goes hand in hand with the demeaning of the presidency. That’s a fascinating theory, but Troy doesn’t really expand on it. Instead of insisting on his thesis in a heavy-handed manner, he simply lays out a number of examples of the interplay between pop-culture figures and America’s better-known presidents. This dispassionate tone wins Troy the reader’s trust, as does his near-mathematical focus on detail. The book almost feels more like a college textbook than a Barnes & Noble–friendly tome of pop history.

#page#Troy starts by delving into George Washington’s affinity for the theater, a taste that didn’t enjoy universal approbation in his day. (The Puritan view of the stage had not quite died out by the late 18th century.) Some of Troy’s later anecdotes, though entertaining, seem to stretch the definition of pop culture a bit. For instance, he recounts a story about Theodore Roosevelt’s disappearance on a train. After a search, he was found “in the lavatory straining to read W. E. H. Lecky’s History of Rationalism in Europe by the only available light.” Now, I have to admit that I haven’t had a chance to finish Lecky’s History of Rationalism in Europe quite yet; but I struggle to think of a definition of pop culture that would include such a volume.

That’s a decent microcosm of how the book goes: It seems more concerned with the presidential side of its equation than the pop-culture side; it will offer more to students of political history than to those studying cultural trends. Troy’s depiction of the get-off-my-lawn cantankerousness of Truman and Eisenhower also shows how this plays out. Troy quotes Truman as saying, about rock and roll, “I was taught to appreciate good music, not this damn noise they play today.” And Troy says that Eisenhower was aghast to learn that Elvis Presley used the melodies from “O sole mio” and “Army Blue” for “It’s Now or Never” and “Love Me Tender”; Ike is even reported to have considered “banning the music from his range of hearing.” Contra the book’s subtitle, these tidbits have to do with pop culture being out of the White House rather than allowed in. But who cares? Harry Truman sounds a little bit like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Perhaps my biggest quibble with the book is its relative lack of engagement with the pop-cultural controversies involving the current president. While Troy gives a detailed account of the role radio broadcasts played in FDR’s presidency, there’s little to no discussion of Beyoncé’s inaugural lip-synching, Nicki Minaj’s faux-repudiation of President Obama’s economic policies, or Lupe Fiasco’s very real repudiation of his foreign policy. There are books to be written on Obama’s relationship with hip-hop. This is not such a book. That’s okay; but there’s so much to work with, and the conversation on the topic would have benefited from Troy’s shrewd eye.

Take the Nicki Minaj incident: A rapper raps that she’s voting for Romney because “lazy b***hes are f**king up the economy” and there’s unabated Twitter rage until the president — the president! — steps in and says he thinks Minaj’s comments were made in character and not meant to be taken as expressing her personal view. And he’s right, and she confirms it! Is hip-hop exegesis beneath the dignity of the presidency? How did we get from Eisenhower’s contempt for Elvis to a world where the president understands the intricacies of a rapper’s lyrics better than almost everyone on the Internet? Does Obama’s affinity for hip-hop reduce the dignity of his office or elevate that medium? I’m inclined to believe the latter (and I think it’s a very good thing), but I would have loved to hear Troy’s perspective.

As for Beyoncé, Troy touches on her relationship with the Obamas, but leaves out much that is interesting. A book that includes lots of detail on Jimmy Carter’s reading habits somehow makes little of the fact that the preeminent pop female vocalist of our time lip-synched the national anthem at the president’s inauguration — and then said she had done it . . . to save her voice for the Super Bowl.

That speaks volumes about the relation, today, between the presidency and pop culture. Troy should have made more of it. But this is a relatively minor complaint; his book has much to offer readers curious about the interplay between presidents and entertainers over the long sweep of U.S. history.

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