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The Heartland Institute last week hosted a luncheon lecture with author and presidential scholar Tevi Troy, who talked about his new book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. [Watch the video of his presentation here, or in the player embedded below.]
Troy, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, is the rare presidential historian who has also served as a high-level White House aide. Confirmed unanimously by the Senate in 2007 as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, Troy is now recognized as an expert on health care policy. Having earned his doctorate in American Civilization at the University of Texas at Austin, Troy is also the author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency.
As an icebreaker, figuratively speaking now that Lake Michigan is mostly frozen over, Troy acknowledged being in Obama’s home town, and spoke about Obama’s Chicago connections — before digressing into Obama’s recent State of the Union address by noting how these annual addresses are continuing to receive less and less attention. While 67 million watched Clinton address the nation, Obama’s recent State of the Union address captured only 30 million listeners.
Further noted was how seldom memorable phases occur in a State of the Union address which linger on to elevate an address above the ordinary run-of-the-mill. Such was the situation with Obama’s recent State of the Union Address. But that didn’t stop Twitter from lighting up with nearly 2 million tweets expressing support of disdain for what they heard Obama say.
Initially as a way to market his book, Troy considered calling it From Cicero to Snooki: How Culture Shapes Our Presidents. What made Troy believe Snooki and Cicero could exist in the same title? As Troy explained, he recognized Obama’s affinity for pop culture, observed during the time of the Congressional battle over Obama’s health-care bill. President Obama told a joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner that zeroed in on Snooki and Minority Speaker John Boehner, referencing the indoor tanning tax within Obamacare. Not long afterwards, however, Obama denied knowing who Snooki was when appearing on The View.
Perhaps fortunate for Troy is that his submitted title proposal wasn’t a hit with his publisher, who thought it made no sense to link the names of Cicero and Snooki together. The two names just didn’t overlap in any way. Snooki was but a “flash in the pan” pop media sensation (the reality TV show featuring Snooki wasn’t even around during the presidency of George W. Bush) whereas the collected works of Cicero are just as relevant today. Which led Troy to an unanswered question: “Is it better to have a president who knows about Snooki or one who doesn’t?”
Prompted by his publisher’s rejection, Tevi Troy settled on What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 year of Popular Culture in the White House as a way to tell the story of how our presidents have been shaped by popular culture. And what a delightful and entertaining story Tevi Troy had to tell as he regaled his attentive Heartland audience with fascinating tidbits of information that only stoked the fire to learn more about how presidents have affected the culture and culture has affected them as set forth in Troy’s book.
In Thomas Jefferson’s day, only two “pop culture” options were available: Reading books and attending live performances, and 18th century presidents availed themselves to both. Even though books were very expensive, Thomas Jefferson had a library of 6,000 books. John Adams’ library consisted of 3,000. Books shaped the American Revolution, which shaped our nation. It was the writings of John Locke, Troy said, which formed the basis for our Constitution. Not well known is that the early colonists were literate — likely to have a Bible and Shakespeare in their homes. Thus a concept of governing evolved that called for an enlightened leader to preside over an educated populace.
By the beginning of the 19th century every president had attended at least one live theater performance. Presidents even went on good-will tours to be seen. As theatrical performances could vary as to the actors of stage, and the way the audience reacted to the dialogue, political expression developed.
Such was the situation in the reelection bid of President John Quincy Adams in 1828 — when Andrew Jackson defeated first term incumbent Adams, having first lost to Adams in his bid for president in1824 in an election decided by the House of Representatives. The win of Adams over Jackson in 1824 was known as a “corrupt bargain,” angering Jackson supporters. So it was during a Washington, D.C. theatrical performance with John Quincy Adams present in the audience that ad lib dialogue by actors conveyed comments favorable to Andrew Jackson. This was enough to give Jackson more than the edge he needed to defeat Adams handily in 1828. The unschooled Jackson was seen as a “man of the people,” and it irked Adams that Jackson was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard, Adams’ own alma mater.
Abraham Lincoln was likewise good at conveying the common touch, according to Troy. Lincoln knew how to speak to the people in the language they understood. Lincoln also loved books and was obsessed with reading. In light of how expensive books were, and not being a wealthy man, Lincoln owned only a limited number of books — among them being the Bible, Shakespeare, and Aesop’s Fables, from which Lincoln learned how to tell tales that resonated with voters. Books elevated Lincoln from his humble beginnings and into a self-educated man, proof that America was a land where one could rise up from poverty to become successful and even become president.
While the railroad was an important technical development in the 19th century, radio emerged as a seismic change in the 20th century. President Warren G. Harding was the first president to use the radio to get his message out, reaching the then amazing total of 125,000 Americans. President Calvin Coolidge was likewise skilled in the use of the radio, using this tool effectively as a savvy radio operator.
FDR was a skilled radio operator, even before being elected president 1932, Troy said. Roosevelt was the first president who shaped his speeches, not for the people in the room, but for the many listening at home. Although Roosevelt is now known for his “fireside chats,” FDR only gave them a few times a year because he didn’t want to over-expose himself to the American people.
Troy noted in his talk taht Roosevelt took his radio speeches very seriously — proven by the fact that he used special paper that didn’t crackle when turning pages, and FDR’s insertion of a false tooth in the front of his mouth to eliminate a whistling sound when he spoke. Roosevelt also crossed out all the “fancy words” his speech-writers gave him, Troy said, so he could better connect with the common folk. FDR was so fixated on appearing as “man of the people,” he served hot dogs to the Queen of England on her visit to the White House. Could it ever happen today that Roosevelt’s bout with polio, leaving him wheel chair bound during his presidency, was unknown to most Americans? The media stuck to publishing photos of Roosevelt minus any hint of a wheelchair.
FDR also exploited the Silver Screen’s ability to distribute political messages. Roosevelt made use of the film industry indirectly to protect him and also gathered celebrities round him for their support — who never depicted him in a wheelchair.
It was with the introduction of TV that presidential politics and the culture were redefined, Troy said. A novelty during the presidency of Harry Truman, it came to be a make-or-break medium in presidential politics. By 1956 percent 73 percent of American homes were in areas capable of receiving TV programming.
President Eisenhower was the first president to host a televised press conference. What is still considered Ike’s most famous presidential speeches of all time is his televised farewell address in which he warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”
Ike, the first presidential TV junkie, especially liked I Love Lucy. It just so happened that the birth episode of little Ricky happened during the time of Ike’s Inaugural speech in 1953. To Ike’s chagrin at the time, the I Love Lucy episode received more viewers than did his inaugural ceremony. TV did remain a problem for Ike during his campaign. It made Ike look old and gray and lacking the appearance of a war hero. Hollywood adviser Robert Montgomery was brought in to help perk up Ike’s image, Troy said.
TV certainly played a part in the September 1960 Nixon/Kennedy election, which featured the nation’s first televised debate. Ike, Troy noted, had warned Nixon not to debate Kennedy on TV, realizing Kennedy’s superior ability in projecting himself favorably — and all who watched the Nixon/Kennedy TV debate declared Kennedy the winner. While Kennedy came off as calm and confident, Nixon appeared sickly and sweaty. Radio listeners actually picked Nixon as the winner. Kennedy would never have won the presidency had TV not been so unkind to Nixon.
When elected, Kennedy skillfully used TV and excelled at doing unedited live news conferences. Note from the Troy presentation: Kennedy was warned by his advisors about being too close to Hollywood celebrities. We know now that Kennedy for the most part disregarded this advice.
Skipping ahead, we all now live in the era of generations raised in the 24-hour news cycle on TV — and worse, the era of Twitter and Facebook, of which Obama is a master. The one time Obama’s father came to visit young Obama in Hawaii, Troy said, he tried to get Obama’s grandparents to turn off the “contraption,” upset that his son was watching too much TV.
Obama still likes to watch TV — arguably too much — and favors shows watched by the “1 percent” of Americans, rather than the “99 percent.” Obama’s publicly expressed favorite shows, Troy said, are Homeland, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, and The Wire — all on premium pay-cable. Once, when told about a sleeper terrorist cell, Obama replied that it sounded like “Homeland,” Troy said.
In the 2012 match-up between Mitt Romney and President Obama, the incumbent president used pop culture to his advantage by appearing on soft media venues like “The View” and Leno — making Obama the first president to go on a late night TV show. Romney, in contrast, appeared dated. When asked about a favorite movie, Romney chose a 1986 movie, Bueller’s Day Off, which didn’t resonate with the younger crowd. Hanging out with celebrities also helped Obama look better and provided him with a platform to amplify his message, thereby contributing to his wins in 2008 and 2012.
Troy said, however, that there was a positive message for Republicans. He believes conservatives are in a better position today than they were thirty years ago to have their message heard, although liberals continue to have the advantage in pop culture, Hollywood, and messaging through film.
Discounting the Republican disadvantage with Hollywood and the mainstream media, conservatives do own the talk media. Troy noted that recently Duck Dynasty has become associated with conservative TV viewing. Knowing how to engage in the cultural battle is essential to a winning strategy.
Troy’s book contains a wealth of material following its final and eleventh chapter. Featured is a comprehensive “notes” section — which, chapter by chapter, tells the location of the presented material. There is also a helpful index to easily locate the references made throughout the book. (I was most interested in the Appendix with its “Rules for Presidents Engaging in Pop Culture.” It would behoove Republican candidates to read up on these rules.
[UPDATE: On February 13th Troy wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Presidential Bible Class,” which features information presented in his book.]
Watch the video of his presentation below: