Brief History: Presidents and Pop Culture

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Richard Nixon invited Elvis Presley to the Oval Office in 1970 after the King wrote him a personal letter

On Dec. 8, Barack Obama will appear on the TV science show MythBusters (and no, it's not an attempt to dispel rumors about his citizenship). The cameo, which will have Obama test a version of the Archimedes solar ray--an ancient Greek weapon supposedly capable of setting ships aflame using mirrors and the sun's rays--is aimed at boosting student interest in math and science.

The use of pop culture by modern Presidents to promote policy has become as common as their ritual mocking by Saturday Night Live (see Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush, Will Ferrell as G.W.). When Bill Clinton arrived in office, teens--who were embracing the videos of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other grunge musicians--were committing suicide in record numbers. The solution: MTV. While the April 19, 1994, "Enough Is Enough" town hall on teen violence gained fame for a participant's question about Clinton's underwear preferences, the President also discussed alternatives to jail for convicts.

The allure of pop luster to Presidents (odd, given their perpetual position as the world's most prominent figures) has tempted even those who were otherwise mistrustful of the public spotlight. Baffled by the reach of 1970s counterculture, Richard Nixon consented to Elvis Presley's request to discuss a position as a "federal agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. For Ronald Reagan, a former actor, combining politics and glitz was second nature. He invited megastar Michael Jackson to the White House in 1984 as part of a campaign against drunk driving. In response, John Roberts, then a young Administration lawyer (now the Supreme Court Chief Justice), warned of the danger of using pop culture for policy gains: The glamour often threatens to overshadow the message.