Arts & Culture » Theater

Playing Politics: The world might be a better place if presidents still went to the theater



The presidential election is seven weeks away, and already the two weary candidates have been asked about everything from their favorite comic-book heroes to flying saucers. But there is one question I've not heard posited. It's an easy question — simpler even than, How many houses do you own? And it's this: Senators McCain and Obama, what is the last play you saw? Which is a specific way of trying to pin down intangibles like curiosity and imagination and, as the first George Bush put it, "the vision thing."

Hard to believe now, but there was a time when our national leaders actually liked going to the theater. Most of us, for instance, can name the last play Abraham Lincoln saw. A frequent theatergoer, Lincoln was especially partial to Shakespeare. His favorite soliloquy was Claudius' "O, my offense is rank" from Hamlet. How much more fitting it would have been if, on that fateful night at Ford's Theater, Lincoln had been attending one of the tragedies. Our American Cousin is a piece of fluff unworthy of its place in history. (Now you know too.)

Although our other martyred president will be forever linked with the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, I cannot find any evidence that John Kennedy ever saw Camelot. All we know for sure is that he enjoyed listening to the original cast record album. But here's an amazing factoid: In October 1960, at the height of the hotly contested election between Senator Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon, JFK took a night off from campaigning to attend the pre-Broadway tryout of The Unsinkable Molly Brown in Philadelphia. Today the very thought of a candidate sacrificing precious campaign time to go to the theater seems unthinkable. A NASCAR race, yes. But a play?

Nixon lost that election in a squeaker, which then gave him time to attend a Broadway musical. The antipathy between Nixon and former president Harry Truman was well known. But in December 1962 these two adversaries found themselves at the same performance of Here's Love. After the show they were forced to pose together for a backstage photo. That portrait of undisguised contempt is more dramatic than anything they saw onstage.

Few people associate the piano-playing Nixon with an affinity for the arts. Yet it was during the tumultuous Nixon years that for the first time a play (the musical 1776) was staged in its entirety in the White House. And although the National Endowment for the Arts was created during Lyndon Johnson's administration, Nixon increased the agency's funding dramatically, thus making the NEA a viable entity. Every regional theater in America has benefited from his unlikely action. Arguably there would be no production of Frost/Nixon at the Rep had the seeds of federal funding not been sown by Tricky Dick.

But perhaps the most surprising theatergoer was the peanut farmer from Georgia. One day during Jimmy Carter's first month in office, press secretary Jody Powell announced that the president had cleared his afternoon schedule in order to reread Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie before attending a performance that night starring Liv Ullmann. It was the word "reread" that blew me away. You mean he'd read it before?

It might be too much to hope that Barack or John is conversant with O'Neill or even Williams or Miller. But guys, if you are, don't be afraid to admit it. Contrary to what your handlers and pollsters might tell you, theatergoing is an old and honorable endeavor, and nothing to be ashamed of. 

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