Obama's Pop Culture Celebrity Can't Drive His Agenda

Article excerpt

Pity the president, first among equals, obliged by the pulls of democracy and of his office to be "equal" and also be "first" all at once.

Picking a leader, people look for somebody well above average, stronger and brighter, with superior judgment, keener intelligence and the ability to be calm under stress. At the same time, he must be approachable, cool and in some sort of touch with the people he works for, or lose a key part of the human connection that is a critical source of his strength.

The first six presidents were aristocrats of different varieties, four Virginians and two Bostonians, who made themselves into classical scholars. It was the seventh, Andrew Jackson, who was the first to come from and rise out of the unprivileged classes, to be followed by a melange of generals, Roosevelts, log cabin babies and even some sons of the great middle class, all trying to be both a part of and apart from the people, a struggle of no small import and consequence, as Tevi Troy in his book on the White House and popular culture makes quite abundantly clear.

A chasm divides the world before 1900, when mass culture consisted of books, magazines and live theatre performance, from the world after it, when, in short order photography, radio and movies burst forth, followed by television and then social media, giving politicians new ways to speak and connect with the public, along with new chances to fall on their face.

As masters of media, Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy stand by themselves, having not only co-opted popular culture but become heroes in it, marketing their personae and those of their families to boost their political brands. Backed by leisurely venues (Hyannis and Sagamore), beautiful women (Alice and Jackie) and adorable children (Quentin and John-John), they are the two presidents who became true celebrities, better known for their personalities and their family dramas than their well-honed political chops. …