Thorner: Presidents Day and Tevi Troy’s book a perfect match

February 17, 2014


By Nancy Thorner – 

A Heartland-sponsored luncheon lecture brought author Tevi Troy, Ph.D. from his home in Maryland to Chicago to talk about his bookWhat Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.

Tevi Troy, Ph.D., 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 administration of George W. BushTevi Troy is now recognized as an expert on healthcare 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, Tevi Troy, PH.D., in acknowledging being in Obama’s home town, spoke about Obama’s Chicago connection 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, Dr. Troy considered calling it From Cicero to Snooki: How Culture Shapes Our Presidents.  What made him believe Snooki and Cicero could exist in the same title?  As explained:  Recognizing Obama’s affinity for pop culture, it was during the time of the Congressional battle over Obama’s health-care bill that Dr. Troy recalled a joke President Barack had told when speaking in front of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  Obama’s joke zeroed in on Snooki and Minority Speaker John Boehner and referenced the indoor tanning tax within “ObamaCare.”  Inferred was that both Snooki and John Boehner could be excluded from the tanning tax. Not long afterwards, however, President Obama denied knowing who Snooki was when appearing on The View.

Perhaps fortunate for Dr. Troy is that his submitted title proposal wasn’t a hit with his publisher, Regency, 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 Tevi 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 Mr. Troy’s book.

In Jefferson’s Day only two options were available:  Reading and live performances. Presidents availed themselves to both.  Even though books were very expensive, Thomas Jefferson had a library of 6,000 books.  John Adam’s library consisted of 3,000.  Books shaped the American Revolution, which shaped our nation.  It was the writings of John Locke which formed the basis for our Constitution.  Not well known is that the early colonists were literate.  They were 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 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 Jacksondefeated first term incumbent Adams, having lost to Adams in his first 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.  Jackson was seen as a “man of the people.”  He knew how to connect with the American people.  It did irk Adams that Jackson was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard, Adams’ own Alma mater

Abraham Lincoln was likewise good at conveying the common touch.  He 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 a wealthy man, Lincoln owned only a limited number of books, among them being the BibleShakespeare, and Aesop’s Fables. From the Bible and Shakespeare Lincoln learned a common language.  From Aesop’s Fables Lincoln learned how to tell tales.  The cost in the colonies to purchase a copy of Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, was $615 in today’s money. Consider how I-Pads can now store 160,000 books.  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 Harding was the first president to use the radio to get his message out, reaching the 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 elected president in 1932, having used the radio effectively in 1924 and 1928.  In using the radio President Roosevelt realized that not only was he speaking to the people in the room but also to radio listeners all over the nation.  Although Roosevelt is now known for his Fireside Chats, he used them sparingly, only 2 or 3 a year, not wishing to over expose himself to the American people.

In that Roosevelt took his speeches very seriously can be ascertained in that he used special paper that didn’t crackle when turning pages, he inserted a false tooth in the front of his mouth to eliminate a whistling sound when he spoke, and all the fancy words others had written for him to read were crossed out.  Appearing as man of the people, Roosevelt 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.

With the technological development to show motion on the screen, coupled with the amplification of voice, the Silver Screen had the 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.

It was with the introduction of TV that presidential politics and the culture were defined. A novelty during the presidency of Harry Truman, it came to provide a homogenized experience for the entire country and as such a make-or-break medium in presidential politics.   By 1956 percent 73% of American homes were in areas capable of receiving TV programming

President Eisenhower was the first president to include televised press conferences and cabinet meetings.  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.”  Noted is that President Dwight Eisenhower watched too much TV.  Eisenhower 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.

TV certainly played a part in the September 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate, the nation’s first televised debate.  Ike had warned Nixon not to debate Kennedy on TV, realizing Kennedy’s superior ability in projecting himself favorably.  All who watched the Nixon/Kennedy TV debate declared Kennedy the winner, during which time Kennedy appeared calm and confident. Richard Nixon by comparison 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.  There were warnings issued to Kennedy about being too close to Hollywood celebrities.  We know now that Kennedy for the most part disregarded this advice.

All presidents in the TV era watched TV, and likewise dominate TV news. More recently presidents were even joked about on late night TV shows.  During the Monica Lewinsky scandal the Clintons went on vacation to get away from it all.  It is said that Hillary in surfing the channels became thoroughly disgusted.  Every station Hillary turned to was taking about her husband’s scandalous behavior.  In frustration Hillary finally settled on ESPAN.

We are now in a new era of twitter and Facebook.  President Obama is skillful in using pop culture to his advantage and could be considered a full-fledged product of American Pop Culture.   Even as a child Obama liked to watch TV when living with his grandparents in Hawaii.  The one time Obama’s father came to visit young Obama in Hawaii, 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 and favors shows watched by 1% of the American people rather than the 99%.  Favorite shows areHomelandMad MenBoardwalk EmpireEntourage, and The Wire.    Once when told about a sleeper terrorist cell, Obama replied that it sounded like “Homeland.”

In the 2012 match-up between Mitt Romney and President Obama, Obama used pop culture to his advantage by appearing on soft media venues like The View and Leno.  Obama was the first president to go on a late night TV show to reach a targeted audience.  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.  Obama handily won the youth vote.  Hanging out with celebrities helped Obama look better and provided him with a platform to amplify his message, contributing to his wins in 2008 and 2012.

There was a positive message for conservative Republicans.  Tevi Troy 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 their disadvantage with Hollywood and the mainstream media, conservatives do own the talk media. Recently Duck Dynasty has become associated with conservative TV viewing.   Knowing how to engage in the cultural battle is essential to a winning strategy.

Tevi 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 an INDEX to easily locate the references made throughout the book.

Thorner was most interested in the APPENDIX with its RULES FOR PRESIDENTS ENGAGING POP CULTURE.  It would behoove Republican candidates to read up on these rules.

On February 13th a commentary article appeared by Tevi Troy in the Wall Street Journal, “The Presidential Bible Class,” featuring information presented in Troy’s book.

Monday, February 17, 2014 at 01:11 PM | Permalink



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