Pop Culture in the White House

By Michael LeaserHere at Clapham, we firmly believe that popular culture can, and does, have a considerable influence on politics and politicians. Tevi Troy, who served President George W. Bush in several capacities, including deputy secretary at the department of Health and Human Services (which has been receiving quite a bit of attention recently), has written a very readable, perceptive, and substantially sourced historical overview of the interaction between popular culture and American presidents.What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted argues that our presidents’ engagement with popular culture often had a significant impact on the public’s perception of their presidents and even on how presidents shaped their policies. Back in Washington’s time, theatre was generally frowned on as “a haven for vulgarity and licentiousness.” The Continental Congress even passed two anti-theater acts, calling theater attendance a “violation of colonial political goals.” Washington helped break that perception by having Joseph Addison’s Cato, a play concerning a martyred Roman republican, performed at Valley Forge for his soldiers. Patrick Henry’s phrase “Give me liberty or give me death” originated from Cato, as did spy Nathan Hale’s last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” As president, Washington attended several plays in Philadelphia, thus using his status as a moral exemplar to validate this supposedly low-brow form of entertainment.In more recent times, President Eisenhower’s embrace of television helped endear him even more to the public. Despite having his televised inauguration upstaged by the birth of Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show (44 million viewers for I Love Lucy compared to 29 million for the inauguration), Eisenhower invited stars Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball to perform at the White House. Ike himself watched quite a bit of television, often enjoying “TV dinners” with wife Mamie, though he wasn’t nearly as strategic in utilizing pop culture as some of his successors.Ronald Reagan, being a former movie star himself, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most relatable, and effective, communicators as President, and part of that success stemmed from his ability to use popular culture to further his political positions. Consider the different ways Carter and Reagan approached film. For Carter, who may have watched more films in the White House theater (480 to be exact) in one term than any other president, movies were an escape. For Reagan, they were an opportunity to shape political discussion. While Carter and many other critics saw the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter as a “dark meditation on the ravages of the Vietnam War,” Reagan saw it as “‘a story of friendship among young men’ that was ‘unashamedly patriotic.’” His take of the film seemed to resonate with the American people and helped in his attempted reinvigoration of the American psyche.Reagan famously used film references in communicating with the American people, such as after a plane hijacking when Reagan noted “Boy, after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do the next time this happens.” And when Congress threatened to raise taxes, he borrowed a line from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character: “Go ahead—make my day.”Not only did Reagan employ pop culture references, he used Americans’ strong interest in story to create essentially his own television program. He worked with aides Michael Deaver and David Gergen, among others, to craft his “message of the day,” which they would feed a hungry media. They also helped ensure that no matter how negative media messaging on Reagan might be, they would endeavor to generate as many positive optics as possible. For instance, in a piece Lesley Stahl at CBS ran on budget cuts, her voiceover was paired with footage of Reagan visiting the Special Olympics and an old-age home, demonstrating a level of care and concern that belied the story Stahl was running.President Obama has also been somewhat effective in engaging pop culture, albeit with an entertainment industry more willing to help him. From his televised NCAA tournament picks to his wife’s appearance at the Academy Awards, Obama has made numerous efforts to engage popular culture with somewhat mixed results. For every friendly appearance on The Daily Show or The Late Show with David Letterman, there have been awkward references to a “Jedi mind meld,” a mixture of Star Trek and Star Wars lingo that insulted both sets of fans, or an embarrassing interview with a baseball analyst when he could not name any of his favorite Chicago White Sox players growing up. Yet with various mean of micro-targeting various segments of the population through an increasing array of traditional and social media, Obama has been able to sell the image he wants: an intelligent yet cool and hip President.As Daniel Boorstin once noted, “Our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals.” How effectively those images convey the story a President wants to tell and how they reflect a shared popular culture will increasingly help determine politicians’ ability to relate to the constituents they serve and their opportunity to continue serving those constituents.