The Magazine

Presidents at Leisure

Two centuries of lightening the burden.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By SONNY BUNCH
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Philosophers, war heroes, a movie star: A wide variety of men with an even wider variety of cultural tastes have inhabited the White House over the centuries. And evolving standards and technologies have combined with evolving political realities to create a culture the White House’s original inhabitants would not likely recognize.

George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were classically educated and the owners of large libraries. And while Washington dedicated much of his reading to farming, he was equally devoted to the ideals of America’s founding, notes Tevi Troy. During his term in office, the first president would host dinners, after which “the men retired to the drawing room to drink and discuss matters of consequence. These gatherings were similar in some ways to the famed Georgetown dinner parties of the not-so-distant past.” Troy also notes that Adams was an engaged reader: “He filled the margins of his books with his reactions, insights, ideas, and—not infrequently—epithets. In his marginalia, he brands Rousseau a ‘coxcomb,’ Voltaire a ‘liar,’ and Condorcet ‘a fool,’ leaving little doubt what he thought about the authors he was reading.” 

Not every president was a deep-reading intellectual. Andrew Jackson, for example, was not burning the midnight oil in an effort to get through Candide. But even the hero of New Orleans understood the importance of the intellectual class.

Despite Jackson’s earthy ways and anti-intellectual airs, he was nevertheless aware of ideas and their power to influence. He was the first president to assemble writers and thinkers to support his campaign, enlisting their help with his speeches and encouraging them to write newspaper articles on his behalf. His literary supporters included James Fenimore Cooper, Horatio Greenough, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Bancroft, and William Cullen Bryant.

Literature was not the only art form to whet the cultural appetite of presidents, of course. Washington was fond of the theater—he even staged a production of Joseph Addison’s Cato during the brutal winter at Valley Forge—despite the fact that polite society frowned upon the stage at the time. Indeed, plays had been illegal just a few short decades prior in New England.

But not all presidents have been huge consumers of culture. Troy reports that James K. Polk, although a university graduate, claimed to have only been to the theater once—in Alabama, to see the ballet. Ulysses S. Grant purportedly declared, “I only know two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’ and the other isn’t.” And George W. Bush, while a prolific reader, did not make much use of one of the White House’s better perks: the in-house movie theater. Jimmy Carter, by contrast, practically camped out in the East Wing’s screening room: “Our most frequent movie-watching president, [Carter] watched approximately 480 movies in a single term.” 

That’s better than two a week for four years—a rate that even I, formerly a full-time film critic, am impressed by.

The presidential screening room helped turn D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) into a hit. In a probably apocryphal anecdote, Woodrow Wilson was quoted as saying that the film was “like writing history with lightning.” But when protests later engulfed the picture for its heroic depiction of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Wilson was forced to denounce it. 

“The Birth of a Nation incident pointed to something new in the American presidency—the president’s role as chief pitchman, intentional or not, in an increasingly commercial culture,” Troy writes. This didn’t just go for motion pictures, either: A presidential mention was just as likely to drive book sales. Troy points out that Ronald Reagan—perhaps our most important pop-culture president, given his long career in Hollywood prior to entering politics—almost singlehandedly turned the late Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984) into a bestseller after calling it “a perfect yarn.”

Sometimes a president, having slipped in the polls and lost the press, chooses not to highlight a book that has influenced him in order to keep from tarnishing it. Such was the case with Bush, who Troy says was impressed by Juan Williams’s Enough (2006) but did not want to praise it lest his “interest in the book .  .  . spoil its influence on policy debates.”

Troy is critical of the urge in most modern presidential campaigns to pander to the lowest cultural denominator. He cites Barack Obama’s references to Jersey Shore’s Snooki, as well as Mitt Romney’s rejoinder that he was “kind of a Snooki fan.” Troy asks: “Are we really better off with a president who knows who Snooki is? This question gets at a challenge that has faced American presidents for nearly two centuries: Do they wish to be men of the people or men of higher understanding?” 

But in an age in which people are targeted in increasingly narrow strips, communication occurs in 140 characters or less, and popular web services specialize in distributing user-made videos that last exactly six seconds, the real question may be this: Do they have much of a choice, any longer, if they want to win?

Sonny Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.