Late in the last year of his presidency, writes Tevi Troy, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a presidential scholar who also worked in the White House, Richard Nixon gave a speech at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., praising country music. “‘Country music is American, [it] isn’t something that we learned from some other nation, it isn’t something we inherited . It’s as native as anything American we could find.’” Country music, Nixon said, came directly from “‘the heart of America,’” expressing “Americans’ love of country and of religion, two loves that appeared to be in short supply among the countercultural left.”
The first draft of that speech, which had been assigned to me as one of the president’s writers, came back with a note from Nixon in the margin. The speech was fine, he wrote, but we needed “some truck drivers’ language.” I supplied a few bowdlerized faux truck stop phrases, and the president fired off one of the last broadsides in what Mr. Troy calls “the culture war between Nixon and his antagonists within the cultural elite” — a war that didn’t end well, and continues today.
Most presidential musical preferences haven’t been expressions of war. Nor have they always been considered politically significant. Zachary Taylor loved to listen to military bands, and Chester Alan Arthur played the banjo. “But Ulysses S. Grant, who won two presidential elections by overwhelming margins, once admitted, ‘I only know two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle.’ The other isn’t.’”
Harry Truman played the piano, and in a memorable moment on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” Bill Clinton, wearing shades, played a version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone. Mr. Clinton’s interest in popular music apparently was genuine. “He and Hillary actually named their daughter after the Judy Collins song ‘Chelsea Morning.’”
John F. Kennedy’s interest in music, bolstered by Pablo Casal’s much-publicized White House recital, was apparently much less genuine. Mr. Troy quotes JFK’s arts adviser: “‘It was not that he didn’t particularly enjoy [music], but I think it was really painful . I really don’t think he liked music at all except for a few things he knew.’”
Mr. Troy sets out to explore the relationships between popular culture and our presidents, from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, educated in the classics at a time when leaders were expected to read seriously, and did so, through Abraham Lincoln, who read and reread the Bible and any other book available so frequently that he was criticized by his father for reading too much. John Tyler was a lover of Shakespeare; Theodore Roosevelt read books “at a prodigious pace”; and Woodrow Wilson was partial to mysteries, as was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took 50 detective novels with him to the 1943 Tehran conference, and at the time of his death was reading “The Punch and Judy Murders” by John Dickson Carr.
Although Kennedy “convinced the intellectual elite that he was reading their books and that they mattered,” writes Mr. Troy, his restlessness and brief attention span militated against serious reading. Nixon, on the other hand, loathed by that “intellectual elite,” not only read widely and deeply, but was also capable of writing first-rate literary criticism, as he did in 1952, reviewing Whittaker Chamber’s “Witness” for The Saturday Review of Literature.
And needless to say, that intellectual elite never could believe that George W. Bush was one of our most widely and deeply read presidents. But unlike many of his predecessors, he never attempted to milk it for intellectual favor or political gain.
Other presidential preferences: President Eisenhower liked Western novels, one of the few genuinely American genres, shunned by our own intellectuals but much admired in Europe. Jimmy Carter preferred film. “‘Do you know I can get any movie I want?’ he asked an adviser, and proceeded to do so, watching some 480 movies during his tenure, the first of them being “the film that probably did more than any other to make him president: ‘All the President’s Men.’”
President Obama’s reading habits are hard to pin down, but he’s very conscious of the interest, writes Mr. Troy, “and he matches his reading to the political exigencies of the moment.” There’s no doubt, however, that he’s deep into popular culture, describing in “Dreams From My Father” how intensely he watched TV as a boy and listened to the top tunes on the radio. He continues to watch TV at night, his preferences running to “dark and edgy” shows such as “The Wire,” or, as one of his family’s favorites, the dreadful “Modern Family,” which because of the Obama family’s stated interest is difficult to avoid on cable.
This well-researched and highly readable book is rich in such material, and Mr. Troy is one of those rare creatures seldom sighted in the wilds of the academic-cultural-literary complex — an accomplished scholar who is also a first-rate writer.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley). The review was first published in the Washington Times and used here with permission of the author, who is my father.