Commentary Magazine

Our Famous Presidents

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

As the saying goes, you can never put the toothpaste back in the tube. Donald Trump is setting a number of precedents, many of which conservatives and Republicans will come to regret when they are cited and expanded upon by the Democrats who succeed him. But Trump’s status as a figure of cultural gravitas is not one of those precedents. Trump is only building upon a legacy that was bequeathed to him by his predecessor.

New York Times opinion writer, author, and Columbia University Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan has authored a thoughtful essay on the nature of fame. As a transgender activist and a former reality television star, she knows what it is like to be famous. She’s written a valuable exploration of a sought-out status that once achieved is often regretted. But her jumping off point—presidential fame, as opposed to influence and authority—deserves more attention.

“In considering the question of fame, though, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the current occupant of the White House is less interested in the good works he might bring about than the fame that comes with the position,” Boylan writes of Donald Trump. Fame is a condition that comes with the oath of office, but Trump secured his fame long ago and took it with him into the White House. That kind of fame—fame for the sake of personal aggrandizement and not toward some noble end—tends to be corrupting, Boylan writes, and is often a source of regret for those who achieve it. Though she might believe the fame that Barack Obama achieved in office was a burden he bore in service to the greater good, Boylan nevertheless notes that the 44th president came to regret his notoriety. At least, that’s what he claimed.

“Barack Obama, appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s show ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ a couple of years ago, seemed to regret being one of the world’s most famous people,” she writes. A world-famous comedian’s comedy talk show is an odd choice of venue for confessing one’s discomfort with the spotlight. “In particular,” Boylan continues, “the president lamented, he missed the ability to just walk down the street talking with a friend unnoticed.” If Obama truly lamented his celebrity, he would have performed a more thoughtful audit of its effects not just on his life but on those around him and the country he led. It would be interesting to probe the former president’s thoughts on the matter today, particularly given his unique successor.

Barack Obama and his allies chafed at a 2008 campaign spot that implied he was more of an empty suit than a candidate of substance, but none could credibly deny the president sought out and achieved “Celebrity.” Obama made numerous appearances on non-news programs like “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert and David Letterman, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “American Idol,” “MythBusters,” “Ellen,” “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” and so on. The president gave ESPN exclusive broadcast access to his NCAA brackets and joked with his favorite FM radio hosts. “People get their news in many different ways,” Obama’s campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told Politico.  “Sometimes it’s turning on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and seeing what the latest news is out there.”

He was described as “too good” at social media. The former president demonstrated a knack for engaging with the young and hip on platforms that reward brevity and platitudes and punishes depth and sincerity. The first family mastered tweeting gifs, Snapchatting playful family moments, and Instagramming impromptu White House dance sessions and presidential posing sessions alongside George Clooney.

Obama’s appearance with Seinfeld occurred in 2015, and it was hardly the first or last time the president sought out forgiving alternative media venues. The former president’s IMDb page lists the accolades more often associated with a teen heartthrob than a commander-in-chief. The president received two Grammy awards and an Image award before he assumed the presidency, nominations for Teen Choice Awards, Kid’s Choice Awards, Mashable’s Tweet of the Year, and, of course, winner of the 2014 Streamy Award for best collaboration (with comedian Zach Galifianakis). The White House communications team deserved that honor more than the president. It was the White House Office of Public Engagement that organized a series of presidential sit-downs with the friendly and unchallenging young hosts of online media outlets, deliberately bypassing the legacy press in the process.

Republicans sneered at all of this, and many civically minded conservatives were sincere. But many more Republicans were envious. They wanted a Republican president who could avoid hard news interviews and press conferences and be praised for his media savvy. They wanted a Republican president who could lob tweets over the heads of the press. They wanted a Republican Obama—a president with universal cultural cachet. And they got it.

There will be some Democrats who refuse to recognize how Trump is building on Obama’s expanded definition of what it means to be presidential because they like Obama’s tweets and celebrity friends and dislike Trump’s. Raw partisanship and motivated reasoning will get you far. But no one could honestly deny that Obama’s warm embrace of celebrity helped deliver us into a new era of political reality television. To quote the former president, one of our biggest collective challenges “is the degree to which we do not share a common baseline of facts.” At least, that’s what he said on David Letterman’s new show on Netflix.

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