That the president is an important media figure is an indisputable fact in the modern political landscape. In my own book on presidents and popular culture, I argued that the ways in which presidents interact with the content and various modes of popular culture can provide a valuable insight into their individual psyches. Now, Kenneth T. Walsh has come along and taken the case to a different level, arguing that celebrity is an indispensible part of the modern presidency and that presidents who handle celebrity better are more successful as presidents.
To accomplish his mission, Walsh takes his readers on a breezy tour of modern presidential history. He stops briefly in some areas, and lingers in others, while making the case that celebrity is a crucial factor in assessing presidential success. He has a point: Presidents aided by the cultural elites gain a boost in popularity and perhaps even in historical reputation. He notes that “President Obama has taken outreach to nontraditional media to an entirely new level,” and that this outreach has helped him politically: “Obama’s job-approval ratings have dropped from their initial highs for a number of reasons, but they would surely be worse if not for his constant and unusual outreach.”
Walsh counts Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton on the successful side of the ledger. (Obama, he notes, “is still a work in progress.”) On the other side of the divide, he puts Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and both Bushes. This analysis raises the question of how, exactly, Walsh is defining success: by accomplishments or popularity on exit? Johnson and Nixon suffer from poor reputations today, but they both accomplished more as presidents than did Kennedy, in his brief tenure, or Clinton, who had relatively few lasting legislative achievements.
In the current landscape, Walsh is effectively pitting Republicans against Democrats in a contest that the GOP has little chance of winning. America’s cultural elite is notoriously liberal, and conservatives will always have a more difficult time competing on this playing field. This is not just some conservative mantra or talking point. Journalist Jonathan Chait, no fan of conservatism, has noted that one need not “be an especially devoted consumer of television . . . to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism” in the popular culture. Walsh makes this point as well, observing that George H. W. Bush “was unpopular (as modern Republican presidents tend to be) with many in the entertainment industry, which seems increasingly populated by liberals.” The treatment of Bush 41 was mild compared with the treatment of his son, who was vilified by the purveyors of popular culture.
Walsh’s analysis is particularly important as we embark on a new presidential campaign. Republicans have not done well in recent presidential elections—in the last six, they carried the popular vote just once—and the relentless cultural critique of Republicans is one of the key Democratic advantages on this battlefield. Celebrity in Chief can provide a useful road map for how Republicans can proceed in this election on the cultural front.
The first piece of advice would have to be that Republican candidates should avoid low culture. Voters may want a candidate that relates to them, but they also want their presidents to maintain certain standards. Barack Obama, it should be said, does not try to maintain said standards—appearing, for example, “on Zach Galifianakis’s insult-filled parody interview program on the Web, Between Two Ferns.” As Walsh notes, “what would have once been called ‘low culture’ dominates the White House as it does our entire society.” Still, Obama gets a sort of blanket of protection from the mainstream media for his cultural dalliances, something GOP candidates should by no means count on getting for their own endeavors.
In addition, Republicans can pursue support in corners of the culture where they do have advantages. Walsh points out that one exception to the media disdain of Republicans is “country-and-western artists, who tend to be more conservative.” Beyond country-and-western, the GOP can also make inroads among NASCAR fans and “Duck Dynasty” watchers. Granted, these are not as all-pervasive as, say, superhero movies; but they can prove important in select areas. The endorsement of the “Duck Dynasty” stars helped Vance McAllister win an unexpected victory in a 2013 congressional primary in Louisiana.
Finally, Republican candidates and presidents alike can benefit from eschewing pop culture and focusing on reading. This can show a seriousness of purpose that voters appreciate. As Walsh puts it,
With all the technologies available for instant communication, from the Internet to television, one might think that reading has become a lost art for presidents. It hasn’t, and it still enables the nation’s leaders to find a valuable link to the world of ideas and especially to history.
One need not compete with Democrats in the realm of pop stars and musicians to show that one is ready to be president. In fact, competing too much in that field can show a lack of seriousness. In 1960, John Kennedy recognized this potential vulnerability and instructed his staff to maintain some distance between him and the Hollywood stars fawning all over him.
In 2016, the GOP will benefit from not running against cultural omnivore Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, is a very different character, lacking the cultural facility that Obama has displayed thus far. Says Walsh, Hillary “needs to show that she is in touch with everyday people and doesn’t take herself too seriously or feel entitled to the White House. This has been a bumpy road for her so far.”
Her challenge is even deeper than that: In the iconic measure of “cool” in popular culture, she will always fall short of Obama. Given her deficiencies, the GOP should have a chance to shrink its cultural disadvantage—and perhaps even end its presidential losing streak.
This was originally published in the July 6 – July 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 issue of the Weekly Standard.