Mona Charen

Post-Jackson presidents were careful to wear their erudition lightly or to leaven it with manly display. Lincoln was one of the finest writers in American history (not just the best among presidents), yet he appealed to voters with folksy stories. Teddy Roosevelt, who published his first book the year he graduated from Harvard, burnished his image as an outdoorsman, hunter and adventurer. Actually, the word "image" is misleading, because it was authentic with Roosevelt. He really did become a rancher in the Dakota Territory, a boxer, a colonel, a naturalist and an explorer. The boy who had been a weak asthmatic grew to be a man who flattened a bully in a Montana bar: "As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out and then again with my right."

Roosevelt was probably the last Republican to be well-treated by writers, artists, actors and other cultural arbiters. (Only country music remains a Republican redoubt.)

Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, popular culture has become an arm of the Democratic Party. Troy quotes a 1930s Harper's piece in which Richard Sheridan Ames saw the future: "What if Hollywood decides to convert the nation to any of its principles? It has the money, the studios, the talent. It controls the major theaters and can command the best advertising media."

Often, as Troy shows, they've conspired with Democratic politicians to concoct historical cotton candy. John F. Kennedy, patron of the arts? Troy notes that JFK had no idea who Pablo Casals was before Mrs. Kennedy invited him to the White House. The peripatetic Kennedy didn't read much. Ben Bradlee recalled that even Kennedy's supposed addiction to James Bond novels (hardly high brow) was a "publicity gag." As for the book for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, "Profiles in Courage," Troy quotes Garry Wills: Kennedy didn't so much "author" the book as "authorize it."

As pop culture has grown ever more vulgar, politicians have tended to plant themselves either in opposition to it (think Romney's iPod) or in support. Bill Clinton played the sax on the Arsenio Hall show and talked about his choice of underwear. George W. Bush was dismissive of TV, telling The Los Angeles Times in 2005 that he had never seen the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Desperate Housewives or Saturday Night Live's parody of his daughters.

"They put an off button on the TV for a reason," he said.

However biased and low, pop culture affects politics. Accordingly, it's not safe for any politician to turn it off completely.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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