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"Celebrities in Chief": American Presidents and the Culture of Stardom

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, August 22, 2023 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1D0022
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Colonel Theodore Roosevelt (left) before becoming president, with Richard Harding Davis, Stephen Bonsall, and Major George Dunn

Americans today expect their president to be not only commander in chief, but also chief executive, crisis manager, and consoler. They also expect our national leader to be our "celebrity in chief."

In an era in which media stardom is a key part of public life and leaders need to understand and participate in popular culture to be effective, a president needs to hold people's interest and entertain them. Ken Walsh, a historian, author, and journalist who covered the White House for more than 30 years for U.S. News & World Report, highlights this important and fascinating theme in a richly illustrated and nonpartisan presentation.

Walsh makes a key distinction between shallow celebrity, which is simply fame with no larger purpose, and consequential celebrity, which links fame to American values or goals. Among the presidents surveyed are George Washington, the first president and also the first celebrity president; Abraham Lincoln, who understood the importance of a positive personal image in governing the fractured nation and waging the Civil War; Theodore Roosevelt, a celebrity who used his personal popularity specifically to build support for his agenda; and Franklin Roosevelt, a master of consequential celebrity.

Turning to more modern leaders, Walsh considers John F. Kennedy, the first mega-celebrity in politics during the television age; Ronald Reagan, a movie and television star in addition to governor of California, who mastered the media of his era, especially TV; and Barack Obama, who immediately became a singular celebrity as the first African American president.

Walsh also analyzes presidents who failed to effectively use the celebrity of their office, such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton is  an example of a president whose celebrity produced a mixed record of success—a category into which Joe Biden also falls, for different reasons.

Donald Trump is examined as a president who used his fame to win the White House with no prior governing experience. As he seeks another term as president, Walsh looks at why he believes Trump will need to channel his celebrity in positive directions.

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