Pop Culture, The White House, and American Jews (REVIEW)
JNS.org – Yehuda Avner’s 2010 book “The Prime Ministers” reveals a tradition of voracious readers among Israel’s leaders, whose homes were lined with books in multiple languages. While those homes remind Tevi Troy of the residences of America’s founding fathers, Troy’s new book begins with President Barack Obama’s reference to the cast of the “Jersey Shore” reality TV show during the Congressional battle over health care.
Troy, who served as White House Liaison to the Jewish community in the administration of George W. Bush, believes current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reading habits fall in line with the scholarly group of early Israeli leaders depicted by Avner. But in “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House,” Troy chronicles the opposite trend developing in the U.S.
Israel’s youth as a nation when compared to the U.S. likely accounts for this discrepancy, he says in an interview.
“Maybe there’s something about the original founding generation, that in order to establish a state or know what makes a good government, you need to be a reader to be steeped in these great questions that man has debated for centuries,” Troy tells JNS.org. “Whereas when you’re a caretaker leader, perhaps you don’t need to read as carefully.”
Troy’s book lays out a historical trajectory in which the increasing prevalence of pop culture in American society has meant that U.S. presidents must be in tune with that culture in order to both get elected and then be “men of the people” while in office. What presidents may sacrifice in the process of immersing themselves in pop culture, however, is their ability to be scholars and “men of higher understanding,” Troy writes.
What does that trend mean for American Jews? Troy tells JNS.org that pop culture is disproportionately shaped by Jewish voices, so if a president needs to be aware of the culture, the president is “clearly aware” of Jewish influences on culture as well.
Troy also chronicles a long history of American presidents welcoming Jewish artists to the White House. But he believes the era of Obama might mark a shift.
“I think in some of these periods, Jews had a special status, because it was easier and safer politically to bring a Jewish artist than an African American artist [to the White House], for example, in some earlier and less enlightened times,” Troy says. “So I think that Obama signals kind of the end of this special relationship between presidents and Jewish artists for two reasons. One is that just his existence signals that we are sufficiently post-racial; that kind of barrier that existed before doesn’t matter. And two, that Jews have made so much progress that nobody really thinks of every Jewish artist as the Jewish artist, so much as the American artist.”
Troy’s book brings to light various unique factoids about how U.S. presidents related to Jews, such as the fact that John Quincy Adams after his presidency began working on, but never completed, a written history of the Jewish people. Theodore Roosevelt, in a 1903 speech for B’nai B’rith, recalled that one of the colonels who fought with him at San Juan Hill was Jewish. Asked whether such a personal anecdote could appear in a modern presidential speech, Troy notes that while Roosevelt probably wrote his own speeches, presidential speechwriters have taken over that role today.
“Having been in the White House and having seen the speechwriting process, I know that the speechwriters do sit down with the president, and if he’s meeting with a group [with which] he does have a personal experience, he will often relay it to the speechwriter, who will try and fold it into the speech,” Troy tells JNS.org. “But even then, there’s a filter between the actual giver of the speech, the president, and the writer of the speech, which kind of limits the personal nature of the story coming out to some degree.”
Troy, who besides being George W. Bush’s Jewish community liaison was also deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, writes in his book that Bush “was a reader and very few people knew it, until it was too late to change the public perception of him.” After losing a 1978 race for the U.S. House of Representatives, during which he was decried as a Harvard and Yale graduate who couldn’t connect with the people of Texas, Bush said he would not be “out-countried” again, and reinvented himself with a cowboy-like persona. That image would get Bush elected as governor of Texas and eventually as president, but also made it difficult for the public to believe that he was a serious reader, according to Troy.
How can modern presidents more effectively mold their images? Troy offers his formula in “Rules For Presidents Engaging Pop Culture” in his book’s appendix. He says the book is recommended reading for future presidents and their campaign staffs, who “need to look at [pop culture] seriously, and have a plan and a strategy for approaching it.” The same goes for Jewish organizations and leaders, Troy says.
“Someone like William Daroff (Vice President for Public Policy of The Jewish Federations of North America), he’s the tweet master general of the Jewish community… and people are in some ways more aware of his organization than some of the others because of his activity on Twitter,” he says. “A generation ago, it was [Anti-Defamation League National Director] Abe Foxman’s ability to get quoted in the New York Times that made his organization better known. So I think the new generation of Jewish leaders needs to adapt to new technologies, just like political leaders need to take these technologies into account.”
The Orthodox Jewish community, meanwhile, must balance Shabbat observance with society’s increasing expectation of its members to be wired 24/7. Troy, who has observed Shabbat for most of his life, says, “There is definitely a need in these days of PDAs (personal digital assistants) for people to feel connected at all times, and I myself put down that PDA at the last minute [before Shabbat] and I pick it up after havdallah. And these things are great tools for knowing more than you could have known in the past. Not necessarily having more wisdom, but having more information.”
That being said, Troy believes Judaism has benefited from having Shabbat “as a period when you step out and when you don’t have your eyes fixed on a screen, and you can connect with family and friends.” He says Orthodox Jewish parents should emphasize to their children the value “of breaking away from pop culture for brief periods, and then re-engaging later.”
What lesson can the Jewish community as a whole glean from Troy’s book?
“I think Jews should be appreciative of the home we found in America and the welcoming nature of the American community, and also of the role the presidents have played in this process,” he says. “But I also think that they need to, when they are in the entertainment world, take their role seriously and think about what messages they are conveying about the Jewish community when they’re creating and playing their product.”
“What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.” By Tevi Troy. 416 pages. Regnery History, September 2013.