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.