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7 Rules for Presidents Dabbling in Pop Culture

Tim Pierce/Creative Commons

Whether it is Jimmy Carter watching more than four hundred movies in the White House cinema or Barack Obama telling people that the flamboyant killer Omar on HBO’s “The Wire” is his favorite character, presidents have long engaged with pop culture. Below is a brief list—adapted from What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House—on how to avoid some of the perils of pop culture. For previous excerpts, see here, here, here, and here.

1) The Subtlety Rule: What you do read and watch should be communicated subtly. It will gain momentum and attention on its own. You are not running Oprah’s book club, so keep the fiction to a minimum.

2) The Law of HBO and Showtime: Know what critics and the opinion elite watch. They are not the same shows that the rest of the populace watches, so adjust your message carefully.

3) The Criticize and be Criticized Rule: If you attack artists or celebrities, you empower them to attack you. Be indirect, not ham-fisted. If you don’t like the message of The Dark Knight, praise Catwoman.

4) The Snapshot Rule: Comment on snapshots of culture or specific scenes or characters, not entire shows or works. Otherwise, you own it all (good and bad) and invite misunderstandings. (See, e.g., Barak Obama’s praise of Omar from “The Wire.”)

5) The Vast Wasteland Rule: Better to use a new technology to communicate your presidential message than to comment on the new technology. (Understanding the opportunity of television helped JFK in his debates, but it didn’t change the fact that TV was a “vast wasteland.”)

6) The Jon Stewart Law: Comedians are more dangerous than producers or reporters.

7) The Prime Directive: Popular culture can help you get elected. Occasionally it can help you communicate. But reading is still king. History and biography are what will help you lead and govern successfully.

Excerpted from What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.