Review: Tevi Troy: What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted

In this meticulously researched and wonderfully readable book, Tevi Troy, noted presidential historian and White House staff member during the George W. Bush administration,  discusses how American presidents have interacted with and been shaped by popular culture. From the writings of Cicero, Plutarch, and Thucydides read by the Founding Fathers, to the surprising discussion of Snooki, “the reality show starlet from MTV’s Jersey Shore,” by the candidates of each major party in the 2012 presidential elections, the cultural and literary influences on the occupants of the White House are enumerated in lively and informative detail. From George Washington to Barack Obama and every president in between, Troy provides little-known anecdotes about and analysis of the books American presidents read, the theater productions they attended, and the movies and television shows they watched.

Troy’s account of the books read by various presidents is especially informative. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were all well-read and built impressive private libraries. Book collecting for these presidents, as Troy observes, “was an expensive habit,” as a new copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, cost the modern-day equivalent of $615 – “roughly the price of an iPad.” Troy also provides some fascinating facts about the number of books collected or read by other American presidents. Jefferson, for example, who once wrote to John Adams that, “I cannot live without books,” collected an enormous library of 6,487 books which became the core collection of Washington D.C.’s new Library of Congress after the invading British burned the Congressional Library in 1814.

Troy notes that George W. Bush read 186 books between 2006 and 2008, which were mainly history and biography. In 2006 alone, Bush read ninety-five books, “fifty-eight of which were nonfiction.” As Troy suggests, this little known fact about our forty-third president would come as a surprise to critics of Bush, who during the 2000 presidential campaign “regularly derided” him “as incurious and unread.”  Many (if not most) presidents did not limit their reading to serious works of non-fiction. “Like Bill Clinton after him,” Troy reminds us, “Woodrow Wilson loved to escape into a detective novel.”

Theater productions became increasingly popular in late eighteenth and nineteenth century America. As Troy points out, “presidential patronage” beginning with George Washington “bestowed a measure of legitimacy and respectability on the theater in the young nation.” Indeed, notes Troy, Washington, for whom attending plays was a favorite pastime, arranged Joseph Addison’s play Cato to be performed for his soldiers during the bitter winter at Valley Forge. Troy also documents the little known facts that Grover Cleveland had a son “who became a Broadway star, playing the role of Sam Craig in Our Town in 1938 and working in the theater for the rest of his long life,” and that Woodrow Wilson, a great lover of theater, saw two shows a week after his inauguration and no fewer than 225 plays while in the White House!

Beginning with Woodrow Wilson, movies provided increasing leisure-time entertainment for the occupants of the White House.  It was Woodrow Wilson, writes Troy, “who launched the tradition of screening films in the White House with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915.”  Movies, Troy reminds us, were one of President Eisenhower’s “three favorite recreations,” along with playing bridge and golf. Ike watched “more than two hundred films in the White House screening room, with a decided emphasis on Westerns.”  Richard Nixon – whose favorite movie was Patton and favorite actor was John Wayne – was a movie-loving president, as was Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Carter, we learn, in 1979 hosted a hundred people for a White House screening of the Woody Allen movie Manhattan. While Reagan, as a former actor, understood the importance of culture in politics and “liked films of a bygone era, when patriotic, hard-working Americans strove to make a better life for themselves,” he also watched a number of contemporary movies as president, including (among others) Chariots of Fire, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Continental Divide.

Clinton, who once admitted to the movie critic Roger Ebert that he loved movies “almost to the point of compulsion,” watched as many movies as he could while in the White House, viewing no fewer than twenty movies during the first three months of his presidency.

President Obama has watched more television than any other president.  Troy quotes Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis who has reported that Obama watches television regularly, “spending the hours from 10 o’clock at night to one in the morning with the television and his iPad.”  Much of his television watching is devoted to sports, especially ESPN’s Sports Center, which he often watches on Air Force One. Other than sports, Obama’s television tastes are both varied and eclectic: his favorite shows include Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, Mad Men, and The Wire.  Moreover, as Troy points out, “Obama’s TV watching and his day job get in the way of his reading.”  Obama has not had (or made) the time regularly to read serious books of history and biography, as his predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush, did.  The presidency is so taxing, Troy quotes Obama as saying, that “you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch Sports Center.”

Troy’s entertaining volume contains a fascinating collection of other little-known facts and tidbits about the history of the presidency and presidential campaigns. Of special interest to this reviewer, as an historian of Jews and the Presidency, is Troy’s informative account of the relationship of Jewish authors and artists and American Presidents, the little-known history of which has never before been documented in one volume.  For example, as Troy recounts, John Quincy Adams “began working on, but eventually did not pursue, writing a history of the Jewish people,” a fascinating historical fact that goes unmentioned in all the standard biographies of Adams.  Adams’ predecessor in the White House, James Monroe, during a visit to Charleston in 1817, “attended a play, titled Alberti, written by the Jewish playwright and religious reformer Isaac Harby titled Alberti. Monroe’s attendance at this performance, notes Troy, was historically “noteworthy because it was almost certainly the first encounter by a U.S. president with a fictional work by an American Jewish author.”

Tevi Troy, the author of the 2002 book Intellectuals and the American Presidency, is one of the few presidential historians who has both studied the White House and worked there at the highest levels. In his immensely thoughtful and insightful new book, Troy brilliantly combines historical anecdotes and analysis and, in so doing, has illuminated a fascinating chapter in presidential history that has often been ignored by previous scholars.  His book is an important contribution to the field of presidential scholarship that should be read by students of the presidency and of American popular culture as well.

David G. Dalin, a rabbi and a professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, is the author or co-author of several books, including The Presidents of the United States and the Jews.