Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. George H.W. Bush and “The Simpsons.” Sister Souljah and Bill Clinton.
And now, Kanye West and George W. Bush.
Musicians are used to beefing with one another or, in some cases, unruly fans. But what happens when the paths of the occupant of the highest office in the land and a pop singer cross? Usually, tons of headlines and lots of head-scratching from pundits who wonder if the Commander in Chief is cheapening himself by engaging in a beef with a singer.
“For the last 40 years, pop culture has become much more important in politics,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a leading figure in the field of American political history. “[It’s become about] how a president fits into pop culture and his relationship to some stars, whose political activism has increased over the past 40 years. … I do think the lines between celebrity culture and political culture have thinned.”
Zelizer was reacting to the ongoing back-and-forth between former President George W. Bush and [artist id=”1230523″]Kanye West[/artist], whose paths crossed once again (via video) on the “Today” showon Wednesday morning (November 10). Bush writes in his new memoir, “Decision Points,” that the “low point” of his presidency was when West said during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
During an interview, “Today” host Matt Lauer asked Bush about that portion of the book, then played a clip from a taped interview with West in which the rapper expressed remorse for calling Bush a racist. Bush responded by saying , “I’m not a hater. I didn’t hate Kanye West.”
Zelizer — author of books about the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — said Bush’s revelation that West’s remark hurt his feelings is a remarkable moment in the confluence of West Wing and pop culture.
“That it elicited the kind of emotion that nothing else does, even criticism about torture … part of it is a celebrity attacking him, but it’s also a bigger issue that bothers [Bush]. This idea that he’s trying to show he’s not coming out of a racist tradition and distinguish himself, that shows a broader frustration about how he’s perceived,” Zelizer said.
Presidents have long consorted with Hollywood, from Elvis Presley’s famous photo-op with President Nixon, to JFK and Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson, George W. Bush and Bono, and President Obama and Jay-Z.
But when they clash with pop-culture figures, Zelizer said, it’s a testament to the power of both players.
“It’s not beneath the president” to beef with a star, he said. Whereas in the past presidents might not have bothered to respond to such slights, or would have ignored them, some modern Oval Office residents have weighed in, even when they’re not the subject of the dis.
After Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, President Obama reportedly referred to his fellow Chicagoan as a “jackass” in an off-the-record conversation with reporters.
For a president facing the most dire financial crisis of our time while juggling two wars, it seemed like a trivial matter to acknowledge, but Zelizer said it’s not so surprising to him.
“The reality is, like it or not, that celebrities have lots of influence in contemporary life,” he said. “In theory, it might be beneath them [to respond to stars’ attacks] because there are other things they should be worried about, but presidents will take it personally. It will get to them, maybe more by being attacked by Kanye West than a member of Congress because of the reality of the world we live in.”
Are you surprised Bush called Kanye’s comment the “low point” of his presidency? Sound off in the comments below!