Pop Culture's Place In the Oval Office

Pop culture influenced the presidents, who in turn, used it to their political advantage.

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JFK is often considered the first television president but you call Eisenhower a TV "revolutionary." Why?

Eisenhower recognized the power of TV and he did press conferences before JFK did. (Although, he didn't do them live. He was willing to have them edited.) He had a TV adviser, Robert Montgomery, who was an actor, and he helped Eisenhower understand how to use television.

[Eisenhower] also understood the power of TV as a form of entertainment. Then and now, you have high brow folks saying that TV is the idiot box or a low brow kind of entertainment. But he understood that it was [a] uniquely American expression and that it was a great way to show the creativity of the American people and the American [entertainment] industry. So he liked the industry and what they were producing.

Michelle Obama just announced a rap album that will be part of her anti-obesity campaign. How does that fit in the President Obama's pop culture reputation?

The Obamas are the first couple to welcome rap into the White House. For a long time rock and roll was seen as subversive and [Bill] Clinton gave it a blessing, especially with the Fleetwood Mac song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." He brought rock stars into the White House. But even then, rap wasn't seen as OK. The Republicans criticized "Cop Killer" in the '92 race and people forget, but Clinton's "Sister Souljah moment" was against someone who at the time considered herself a rapper.

But the Obamas have in some ways given rap the presidential blessing. As always with these things, it's a double edge sword. You can say rap's OK, but you're always going to have someone who says problematic things, like Common, who they invited to that poetry [event] at the White House. Some people read the lyrics of his songs and the critics weren't so happy with it.

[FLASHBACK: Obama Shows His Human Side to Leno]

Everyone talks about Obama being so plugged into pop culture as being a strength. Is there a time when that's a disadvantage?

You can be seen as less serious, if you're too obsessed with pop culture. You can sometimes make a misstep, as Obama did at a press conference when he called something as a "Jedi mind meld" [conflating the Jedi mind trick of "Star Wars" with the Vulcan mind meld of "Star Trek"]. So the guy clearly knows a lot about pop culture, but he was criticized for confusing the two – obviously not in a devastating or really horrible way – because people have such high expectations of his knowledge of pop culture.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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