When handing out top medals in the arts and humanities last spring, President George W. Bush extolled popular culture and the importance of producers, actors, singers, dancers, painters and writers.
“They connect us to our present, and point the way to our future. And of course, they all have the right stuff,” the President said.
Just don’t ask Bush about his own entertainment choices. Nearly two years into his reign, the country’s 43rd President has established himself as a cultural cipher.
It’s not that showbiz or the arts have been shut out of the White House: It’s that Bush couldn’t care less about the Kelly Clarksons or the Placido Domingos of the world. He’s happy to go straight to bed after a hard day’s work on his oval island.”I must say, he hasn’t provided a lot of fascinating copy,” Washington Post gossip columnist Lloyd Grove says. “He has very little impact on culture. Perhaps that’s as it should be. You can make the argument that our culture and our artistic life aren’t dependent upon government officials.”
One partial antidote to Bush’s disinterest is First Lady Laura Bush, an avid reader who once proclaimed Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” to be her favorite novel.
Unlike Nancy Reagan or Hilary Clinton, though, she works below the radar. Recently, she was a guiding force behind the “White House Salute to America’s Authors” and the 9/11 commemoration “A Concert for America.”
Culture watchdogs say that while there has been measured financial support for the arts, there is also something refreshing about a White House not obsessed with celebrities, particularly after the Clintons’ eight-year gaga fest with Hollywood.
“The President and the First Lady are not star-struck. That’s a tremendous asset, but we’re not used to it,” says Hollywood writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, who sits on the President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities. “This isn’t a public presidency.”
More important for the studio suits, the Bush administration’s disinterest in the arts has had one positive result: the pressure to clean up entertainment marketing has ceased.
The White House says that popular culture is in the eye of the beholder, and that the President is in no way cut off from the culture he reps.
As a former Major League baseball owner, Bush did toss the first ball at the World Series last year. The White House says Bush has attended a number of cultural events with his wife, including “Oklahoma!” and plays at Ford’s Theater.
But President Bush’s lack of connection to entertainment and the performing arts can’t be entirely separated from policy.
His administration has been scrambling since Sept. 11 to get its act together on the important matter of “public diplomacy,” wanting to counter the stereotype abroad of the ugly, bullying American.
A founding principle of public diplomacy is to build cultural bridges — versus bombing them into oblivion. The principle states: Invite an Iraqi musician, let’s say, to perform at a state dinner for a visiting Israeli official.
State dinners, with all their pomp and circumstance, have long been a showcase of internationally recognized celebs and performing artists.
By this time in his presidency, Bush’s father had held 17 state dinners. Clinton hosted 27 during his two terms. George W. has held two.
The first, held just before Sept. 11, was for Mexican President Vicente Fox. The second was thrown in July for Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his wife, whose names were mauled by an announcer.
Bush has appeared uncomfortable in such venues, and made an early exit from July’s dinner after taking a quick turn on the dance floor.
“Bush is conducting diplomacy by other means. The only culture he’s concerned about is Saddam Hussein’s weapons,” Grove said.
The White House counters that Bush has hosted plenty of world leaders — in a manner of his own choosing. He’s hosted foreign luminaries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He also likes to take company to Camp David.
Some argue that the terrorist attacks changed the world forever, and that Bush clearly has more important things to do than donning his tux and heading downstairs to partake in festivities.
But has 9/11 become a cover?
In recent weeks, Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney have attended multiple fund-raisers across the country to help candidates vying in November’s general election.
So war or no war, the culture of money is still a driving force at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
And when it comes to commerce, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti and the major Hollywood studios appear to have no complaints with the White House.
Clinton may have been enraptured with the entertainment biz, but he also authorized the Federal Trade Commission to wage an all-out attack on the marketing practices of the movie, record and vidgame biz. The assault left Hollywood badly bruised.
The Bush administration quickly made it known that it was leaving the issue alone. It also promised to make itself available to discuss particular problems, such as runaway production.
A few studio execs and celebrities have been visiting the White House over the last year to discuss what they might do to aid the war against terrorism, but they met not with Bush, but with top White House advisor Karl Rove.
Studios bowing war pics rushed to arrange last-minute screenings in Washington, inviting administration toppers and Capitol Hill lawmakers.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was happy to accompany his teenage daughter to Paramount’s “The Sum of All Fears,” making sure his U.S. Secret Service detail got directions to the after-party so that his daughter could meet the film’s star, Ben Affleck.
Bush himself seems to have little personal appetite for movies.
There’s a hotline between the White House and the MPAA that any prez can use to ask for a pic. Bush 1 was constantly picking up the phone. So did LBJ (although he was known to fall asleep as the opening credits rolled).
President Bush has hosted only a small number of formal screenings.
Early on, he asked some of the Kennedy brood to join him in watching “Thirteen Days.” He also had Mel Gibson over earlier this year to screen “We Were Soldiers.” Another movie he officially screened was “The Rookie.”
One of Bush’s favorite celluloid characters is Mike Myers’ Austin Powers, and that the prez rushed to watch the latest sequel, “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”
Bush, however, didn’t know anything about two other benchmarks of pop culture, the reality skein “Survivor” or the hit HBO series “Sex in the City,” according to White House press pool reports.
“He doesn’t pay attention to popular culture, which hasn’t been nice to him. He’s the butt of all those jokes and is the best President Comedy Central could have,” says one White House reporter.
“It’s really brilliant on his part, because by being tuned out, he doesn’t have to stomach the worry of what people say about him.”
Administration insiders say the White House looks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to connect with popular culture.
The two orgs were set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson, another Texan who was often decried as a hick, but who nonetheless “got” the importance of the arts to American culture.
So far, Bush hasn’t tried to cut NEA or NEH funds, which have long come under attack by some conservatives — including the veepee’s wife, Lynne Cheney.
Trying to read the tea leaves about Bush’s intentions for the NEA and NEH is difficult. His first choice as NEA leader, Michael Hammond, died tragically just one week into the job. The search continues for another topper 18 months later, perhaps an indication of just how low on a list of priorities that org is.
At the White House, Laura Bush continues her low-key work, including the “Salute to America’s Authors” series, showcasing such greats as Mark Twain and the writers of the Harlem renaissance.
The last symposium was held on Sept. 17, and headlined the works of Willa Cather, Edna Ferber and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Screen Actors Guild prexy Melissa Gilbert, who played Ingalls Wilder in the long-running TV skein “Little House on the Prairie,” attended the event.
When agreeing to sit down for interviews, Laura Bush insists that she and her husband lead separate lives, in that they don’t tell each other what to say, or watch or read.