When the celebrity of the President outweighs the office

Once upon a time in America, it was believed that the president of the United States should have the gravitas and proper sense of priorities to distance himself from the triviality of showbiz. Then along came television, and Nixon poked fun at himself onLaugh-In, Clinton played blues sax on The Arsenio Hall Show, and Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon. Now anyone who aspires to occupy the White House is expected to show that he or she is just as comfortable hanging with celebs as mingling with heads of state. Welcome to the era of the pop culture presidency.

In his recent book Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom, presidential historian Kenneth T. Walsh argues that celebrity is an indispensable part of the modern presidency, and that presidents who handle celebrity better are more successful. While what constitutes “successful” is arguable, it’s true that a comfortable engagement with pop culture has become an important selling point for presidential candidates.

Walsh’s book was reviewed recently by Tevi Troy, who traced the interaction (or lack thereof) between our presidents and the pop culture of their time in his own book on the topic, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Troy argues that pop culture is the most influential arena in which to connect with the American people—especially the politically coveted younger generations—and for capturing their imaginations.