Exclusive Excerpt from “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted”
by Dr. Tevi Troy
Exclusive to Start Spreading the News
As a huge baseball fan, I try to mention baseball in all of my books. Here are some selected excerpts of the baseball mentions in my three most recent books.
In 2013, I published What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House, which looked at how presidential cultural interests changed as technology changed. There was of course no baseball in the 18th century, but by the 20th century, baseball was an important part of American culture, and presidents needed to show some familiarity with it to prove that they were approachable to the common man.
FROM WHAT JEFFERSON READ, IKE WATCHED, AND OBAMA TWEETED:
[Teddy] Roosevelt may have read more than any other president, but the years he was in the White House were in many ways the gateway to the post-reading era. Baseball cards, the Montgomery Ward catalog, the phonograph—these modern diversions appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century, a trickle of distractions which, as technology advanced, grew into the torrent that swept reading from the leisure hours of most people.
Broadcasting and other new forms of entertainment allowed presidents to branch out in their search for celebrity endorsers. In fact, the most famous man in America for much of the 1920s and 1930s was neither an actor nor a writer—although he did act and wrote a syndicated column. He was, in fact, a baseball player, George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The legendary slugger met or corresponded with every president from Wilson to Truman and even had his picture taken with the captain of the 1948 Yale baseball team, the young George H. W. Bush. As a number of presidents would learn, interactions with the Babe were prized but also somewhat unpredictable. When the Harding campaign approached Ruth about an endorsement, he first responded, “Hell no, I’m a Democrat.” When he subsequently found out there was money involved, he became slightly more receptive, but the endorsement never came off due to scheduling conflicts. Nevertheless, Harding invited Ruth to the White House on a number of occasions and even entertained him in the presidential box on opening day of 1922, when Ruth was unable to play as a result of a suspension.
Calvin Coolidge had a famous but deflating meeting with Ruth on a hot day in 1924. Babe greeted the president by exclaiming, “Hot as hell, ain’t it, Prez?” Although he likely meant little by it, Ruth’s crack was indicative of the decline in respect accorded to the presidency. The more presidents wanted to be viewed as regular folks, the more they would be treated as such, elevating entertainers and celebrities at the presidents’ expense. It is little wonder that a New York Times editorial in April 1925 would argued that “it involves no disrespect to Calvin Coolidge or to Charles W. Eliot [the former president of Harvard] to suggest … that the Home Run King is the first citizen of the land.”
Coolidge’s successor suffered even greater indignities at the hands of the great Bambino. In 1928, a rumor went around that Ruth was backing Herbert Hoover over New York governor Al Smith. When the Hoover team asked to get a picture with Ruth, who in fact backed Smith, he refused. Reporters found out, and the stories of “Ruth refuses to pose with Hoover” threatened to cause trouble for Babe with some of his business interests, notably the Republican papers that ran his syndicated column. Ruth relented and posed with Hoover. But he also posed—along with eight other New York Yankees and their batboy—with the team’s home-state governor. Hoover won anyway, securing the privilege of presiding over the Great Depression.
Ruth, in his irreverent way, contributed to the long-standing perception of Hoover as an ineffectual leader. In the fall of 1929, after things had turned sour but before the long-term effects of the Depression had fully set in, Ruth was asked about the disparity of income between himself—who earned a $80,000, a staggering amount at the time—and the president, who earned only $75,000. Ruth’s famous reply: “Why not? I had a better year than he did.” Even though 1929 was an off year for Ruth—forty-six home runs, and the Yankees failed to make the World Series—Ruth’s comment haunted Hoover as the Depression continued and the president’s popularity evaporated. Babe Ruth taught presidents about the dangers of dealing with celebrities, who were a growing force in American culture. The Founders sought wisdom from the cultural leaders of their time, theater-going presidents sought to connect to the common man, and Roosevelt and Lincoln pursued self-improvement. As celebrities become more important, presidents increasingly sought the political advantages of the reflected glory of American superstars of the theater, the book, or the baseball diamond. These initial forays into celebrity culture were tentative, as presidents sought to maintain the dignity of their office. As the twentieth century progressed, the outreach to celebrities increased, but the effort to maintain presidential dignity at the same time became increasingly difficult.
Woodrow Wilson was the last president to serve before radio became a regular feature of American life. Canada’s Reginald Fessenden transmitted his violin rendition of “O Holy Night” on Christmas Eve 1906, the first entertainment broadcast in history. The first commercial broadcast took place in 1920, Wilson’s last full year in office, and the first broadcast of a baseball game—the Phillies versus the Pirates—took place on August 5, 1921. Wilson himself did not deliver a radio address until November 1923. It reached three million people and is the oldest recorded radio address in the National Archives. In his memoir Decision Points, [George W.] “Bush cites book after book that influenced his thinking in the White House,” Harrington observes. Among them are Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command, which “argued that a president must hold his generals accountable for results,” and H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, which found “that the Vietnam War military leadership had not done enough to correct the flawed strategy adopted by President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.” Bush told Harrington that his decision to bail out the banks in 2008 was shaped by his reading on the Great Depression: “I had read enough history about the Depression to know the consequences…. I didn’t want history to record that there was a moment when George W. Bush could have done something to prevent the depression and chose not to.” A fascinating book reference in Decision Points that Harrington doesn’t mention is to a novel, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. That book, Bush says, shaped his compromise that limited government funding for embryonic stem-cell research. On a less policy-oriented note, Bush told the New York Yankees coach Don Zimmer at the 2001 World Series that the only book he had had time to read since the 9/11 terrorist attack was Zimmer’s Zim: A Baseball Life.
[Barack] Obama aggressively circumvents the mainstream media when necessary. In the 2012 campaign, he favored “niche online outlets that did not have access, or did not exist, during previous administrations, including personal finance Web sites like The Consumerist and Fool.com, and African American Web sites like Jack & Jill Politics, The Root and theGrio.” He also likes to grant interviews to “soft” news sources that cover entertainment or sports. These are fora in which Obama has little fear being hit with controversial questions. He granted ESPN’s Bill Simmons a podcast interview in which he talked at great length, and in impressive depth, about professional basketball. On rare occasions these interviews can trip him up, such as the time in 2010 when baseball announcer and former pitcher Rob Dibble asked Obama to name his “favorite White Sox players growing up?” Obama swung and missed at the pitch, saying, “You know … uh … I thought that … you know … the truth is, that a lot of the Cubs I liked too.” As if this admission was not bad enough to Cubs-hating White Sox fans, he added that “When I moved to Chicago, I was living close to what was then Cominskey Park [sic] and went to a couple of games and just fell in love with it.” This answer compounded the problem, as all baseball fans know that the White Sox used to play at “Comiskey” park. Obviously uncomfortable with the direction of the interview, Obama moved onto the more familiar ground of class warfare, criticizing highfalutin Cubs fans “sipping their wine” at Wrigley Field. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote that the awkward incident recalled for him when “CBS’ Katie Couric sweetly asked Sarah Palin what she liked to read. Palin drew a blank and reporters never let her live it down.”