Imagine my surprise this week when my daily paper suddenly turned into a copy of US Weekly. With a turn of the page the New York Times became the sort of celebrity magazine that dispenses trivia in order to prove that a rich, famous, and powerful person is, at heart, just like us. The luminary was Barack Obama, whose taste in television was mined by correspondent Michael D. Shear for insights into the presidential character. Shear failed to provide any, but his article was riveting nonetheless. What at first glance might be dismissed as a piece of journalistic fluff, a beat-sweetener written for the slow news days between Christmas and New Year’s, is on close examination an exercise in social positioning, an assertion of class allegiance on the part of the president and the paper.
You remember Shear. He is the same reporter who, in an interview last summer, interrupted the president to say that he, too, was aware of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam’s existence. In “Obama’s TV Picks—Anything Edgy, With Hints of Reality,” Shear reports that the president, whose “life in the Oval Office” is marked by “war, terrorism, economic struggle,” and “mass shootings” has a taste, “in his few quiet moments,” not for situation comedy but for drama. He indulges this taste by watching copious amounts of television.
Obama, we learn, “seeks not to escape to the delicious back-stabbing of the ‘Real Housewives,” nor to “the frivolity of the singing teens on ‘Glee,’” but to “shows like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire,’” as well as to “the DVD box set of AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad,’” “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “The Wire,” “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Sportscenter.” “Friends say Obama is also awaiting the new season of the Netflix show ‘House of Cards.’” The president has the same attitude toward spoilers that he has toward leaks. He is against them. They might interfere with his viewing. “The president is way behind” on “Breaking Bad,” Shear writes, “and frequently reminds those around him not to give anything away.”
The problems with Shear’s exercise in psychoanalysis quickly become apparent. He makes distinctions where none ought to exist. The antics on “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation” are just as frivolous as “the singing teens on ‘Glee.’” “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” and “House of Cards” are filled with as much “delicious back-stabbing” as any episode of “Real Housewives.” The dramas the president favors are soap operas with sophisticated vocabularies. Left unmentioned is the difference between the shows Shears poo-poos and the shows Obama watches. It is the same difference between a juicer bought at Wal-Mart and one bought at Williams-Sonoma: the latter is a luxury good. It takes cash to afford the cable connections, premium channels, and Netflix subscriptions required to watch all of the titles on the president’s viewing list. It is also necessary to have leisure time, which, disturbingly, the president seems to have a lot of. No wonder he finds out about everything from the newspapers.