First Family of culture?
February 22, 2005 By Robin Abcarian
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
At this point in the presidency of George W. Bush, you might think you know just about everything worth knowing about him: his love of liberty, his rejection of the Eastern elitism that is his birthright, his irresponsible youth, his profound religious conviction, his tendency to see the world in black and white.
But there are certain colorful aspects of the president's life that have not been much explored, understandably overshadowed by war and a hard-fought election. That he listens to Creedence Clearwater Revival on his iPod, for instance. That he loves biographies and has recently dipped into Tom Wolfe's latest take on American culture. That he and his wife are enthusiastic art collectors. That he has no idea what's happening on Wisteria Lane.
These points may be light, but they are not entirely trivial. As historian Douglas Brinkley put it, "The president and first lady have an immense pull on American culture."
The Bushes are aware of this, said Laura Bush's press secretary, Gordon Johndroe. "There is a certain expectation that the president and first lady be consumers of American culture. They know people are interested in what movies they see and what music they listen to."
The president has owned the personal accessory of the moment for some time, said Johndroe. He has loaded his iPod with his favorite country singers: George Jones, Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson. He also listens to Aaron Neville, Creedence and Van Morrison.
The first lady doesn't have an iPod, but she is a confirmed online shopper. "She buys everything online," Johndroe said.
Although she has always looked like a classy librarian, this year she has blossomed into a more chic version of herself, appearing at the inauguration last month in outfits by first-rank American designers Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera.
She knows what Googling is and has discussed the effect of eBay on the economy with its CEO, Meg Whitman. For privacy reasons, the Bushes do not use e-mail.
They also don't have much time for TV -- occasionally, they watch Country Music Television, Johndroe said. The president, a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, told C-SPAN in an interview broadcast Jan. 30 that he mainly watches sports.
The couple have not caught "Desperate Housewives," Johndroe said, but their daughters are fans of the melodrama on Wisteria Lane.
The Bushes have not seen their daughters parodied on "Saturday Night Live" by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Nor have they seen Comedy Central's popular fake-news broadcast, "The Daily Show."
But, Johndroe said, "they are familiar with Jon Stewart and his comments about `Crossfire."' (Last October, Stewart appeared on CNN's bipartisan scream fest and told co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala their bickering was hurting America.) At least one of the Bushes approved of Stewart's message: "Mrs. Bush shares some of the same sentiment that many of those shows on TV have become one side yelling at the other and the other yelling back," Johndroe said, "and no one has any idea what they're talking about."
On the big screen
The Bushes watch first-run movies once or twice a week. They screened "Meet the Parents" for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, at Camp David. Recently, the Bushes watched the sequel, "Meet the Fockers," as well as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Laura Bush watched the French film "A Very Long Engagement." Last summer, she invited the Afghan ambassador's wife to the White House to see "Osama," a feature film by Siddiq Barmak about women under the Taliban.
Brinkley, a biographer of John Kerry, says he thinks the Bushes reveal of themselves what is politically expedient: "He's trying to be a populist from Texas. These are people that look down on high culture."
"Everything he earmarks about the culture is that it's not good to be from a blue-blood aristocratic family," Brinkley said. "You have to maintain your outsider status. You don't want to get tied up in anything highfalutin because that immediately reeks of liberalism and The New York Times and effete-ism."
The Bushes, said Robert Lynch, president and CEO of the arts advocacy organization Americans for the Arts, have supported increases in arts funding in a low-key way.
By custom, the White House has boxes in three of the Kennedy Center's seven theaters. Laura Bush often takes in performances of ballet, opera and theater. The president only occasionally attends. "It's so much easier for her to get out of the house than him," Johndroe said. "When he goes, it's motorcycles, the military aide, the press pool."
The Bushes share a love of Texas art. "I would consider them collectors," said Adair Margo, an art gallery owner from El Paso, Texas, who chairs the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. "They are both tethered to a love of the land."
As Brinkley hinted, there may be a gulf between Bush's consumption of culture and what is widely believed to be his consumption of culture. For instance, the president is often derided as a man whose reading runs to box scores and the Bible and whose knowledge of the world comes to him via highly condensed memos, or "memorandi" as he called them on C-SPAN. He does read the Bible every day, he said, but he is also a fan of biographies. He's recently read two books about Founding Fathers -- Joseph Ellis on George Washington and Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton (which he told C-SPAN is "a fascinating history of how hard it was to get democracy started in some ways"). He doesn't talk much about novels.
"I would like to learn that he's a great reader of fiction," said Kurt Andersen, a novelist and journalist who hosts a national radio show about the arts and culture. "His view of the world seems to be black-and-white and un-nuanced."
On the doorstep
The president has been mocked for saying that he doesn't read newspapers. In fact, though, the Bushes subscribe to six papers: The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Dallas Morning News.
"What he was saying was he doesn't read the stories about the events he went to," Johndroe said. "He was there; he knows what happened."
Laura Bush's love of reading befits her background as a former librarian and teacher. Presidential biographers have recounted that on her first visit to the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, when her future mother-in-law asked what she did, Laura replied, "I read, I smoke, I admire."
"My sense of her is that she reads and cares about literature," Andersen said, "like many women in America who read novels and are married to men who don't."
Laura Bush's recent reading shows she's in touch with the best-seller list -- she read "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, a novel set in Afghanistan, and her next novel is Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead."
The president bestowed the ultimate plug recently when he began talking about a book that has influenced him tremendously. "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy," he recently told reporters, "read Natan Sharansky's book `The Case for Democracy.' For government, particularly for opinionmakers, I would put it on your recommended reading list."
Sharansky is the Soviet refusenik-turned-right-wing-Israeli-Cabinet-member who posits that free societies do not go to war with one another.
Bush divulged just before last month's inauguration that he'd read Wolfe's new novel, "I am Charlotte Simmons," and found the novel, a graphic romp through the sex lives of college students, "somewhat shocking."
Wolfe, who was awarded a National Humanities Medal by Bush in 2002 and voted for him in November, was delighted to hear the president had read the book. "I think that he has great discrimination," Wolfe said.
Wolfe comes down on the side of those who don't think the president, or any politician for that matter, has an obligation to be engaged in cultural pursuits. "Historically, it's been something in Europe and Asia that politicians do in order to make themselves look cultivated. It never has been very common in this country."
To some Americans, however, these details are touchstones. "I remember when Jimmy Carter was running for president and he made a big deal about liking Bob Dylan, and that was great," said Andersen. "Personally, I like those rare times when a president has a real, authentic passion about something."
On the roof
Andersen noted that the president's passive-solar Crawford ranch house, with its recycling systems, is an ambitious example of green architecture. Is that a passion of Bush's? "Maybe because it doesn't jibe with the conventional wisdom about George Bush, it is sort of ignored."
Brinkley says he thinks that omission suits the Bushes just fine.
"It's a masterpiece of Great Plains ecological architecture," he said, "and it's nothing they try to talk much about. That's politics."