Mitt Romney’s iPod playlist featured Johnny Cash, Frankie Valli, the Beach Boys and the Soggy Bottom Boys. Barack Obama’s iPod had, the president assured his fans, something for everyone — “Stevie Wonder, James Brown. I’ve got Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan,” Obama said. “And then I’ve got everything from Jay-Z to Eminem to the Fugees, to — you name it.”
This pop cultural posturing isn’t new, as historian Tevi Troy chronicles in a highly entertaining survey of how American presidents have consumed and affected pop culture: “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted”.
In a democratic republic, successful politicians are usually those with the common touch. Our current “cool” president is clearly adept at this politician’s art, though some may be wondering, as he struggles to put a foot right in the second term, whether he has mastered other aspects of the job —congressional relations, domestic policy, foreign affairs, that sort of thing.
It’s difficult to imagine what the Founders would have made of a president of the United States endorsing the expletive-laden lyrics of Jay-Z and Eminem. Jefferson and Adams could read Latin and Greek and discourse knowledgably about Blackstone, Locke and Montesquieu — and they did, in a correspondence that brightened the final 14 years their lives, until they died within hours of each other, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
John Quincy Adams’s intellect may have been even more dazzling than his father’s. David McCullough called him “maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office.” Troy writes, “As president he enjoyed poetry, literature, theater, opera, and translating Latin texts.” The man who unseated him was uncouth, had read very little, and even made embarrassing spelling errors. But Andrew Jackson, like many who would follow him, knew how to turn his apparent simplicity into a political asset. When students at Harvard addressed him in Latin, he replied, “I shall have to speak in English. ... The only Latin I know is E Pluribus Unum.”