Forget ‘Cats.’ These Musicals Belong in the White House


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[W]hen Mr. Trump descended into rage, his staff resorted to summoning an aid, nicknamed the Music Man, to play favorite show tunes they knew would soothe him, including “Memory” from the Broadway musical “Cats.” — The New York Times, summarizing the account of White House aid Stephanie Grisham

My usual theme for Fourth of July is about how politics is at the core of the American republic, and that celebrations of Independence Day should keep politics — not military might — in the forefront.

I had been thinking this year about writing a tribute to poll workers, the maybe 600,000 people who allow us to hold the nation’s numerous and held elections. Or perhaps to the half-million US elected officials. Or to the many millions who get involved in electioneering, party politics and interest groups.

They’re the ones doing what the nation was founded to do — even if the vast majority of them would have been excluded from the Framers’ ideas of who was included in “the people.”

All that is well and good. But as a member of the American Political Science Association sections on Politics, Literature and Film and on Presidents and Executive Politics, I can’t help but be focused on the Music Man in the Trump White House.

Now, granted, he wasn’t exactly Professor Harold Hill, the spellbinding conman who is the lead character in that show. But I imagine he thought of himself as Hill. And so for July Fourth, I’m thinking about Broadway and Hollywood musicals — one of the great US cultural accomplishments — and how they could help President Joe Biden and future occupants of the Oval Office.

What could characters from classic musicals bring to the White House staff?

Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman from “The Music Man”: I’m not sure that any president really needs a Harold Hill. But a Charlie Cowell? He’s more or less the villain of the show — he sells a real product, albeit with a very limited market, and resents that Hill is conning everyone and ruining it for honest salespeople.

Having a Cowell around might be helpful to presidents who are inclined to be too caught up in their own myth-making, and for White House staffers who, after all, have strong incentives to believe those myths as well. Having someone around to drop that anvil on the floor and deflate some of the hype would generally be a good idea.

Big Jule from “Guys and Dolls”: Big Jule is a bully and a cheater, which are not usually the types you want in a president. He forces the gamblers to shoot craps with his special dice that have no dots on them, telling them that he “knows” what the dice are saying.

I wouldn’t normally recommend the presidents try that sort of thing. But it’s basically what Seth Masket is recommending right now to Biden after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn abortion rights. Right now, perhaps Biden could use Big Jule to remind him that every once in a while the president should insist on using his own dice just to see if he can get away with it.

Anna from “The King and I”: An obvious but important choice. Presidents need someone — actually they need lots of someones — who are willing to confront them with the truth. Or even with strong opposing opinions. Ever since the Bay of Pigs at least, presidential scholars and staffers have known about the dangers of Group Think, but it’s very difficult to fight. Presidents definitely need Annas.

Alexander Hamilton from “Hamilton”: Is it cheating to include him? It’s hard to think of anyone better suited for White House chief of staff from the era before the job existed.

Max Detweiler, the impresario from “The Sound of Music.” “Uncle Max” is a difficult character, and I’m not sure my interpretation of him is accepted by everyone. He is certainly self-serving, cynical and manipulative. Yet in the end, he also had a moral line he would not cross. Granted, it’s not much, but it’s there.

Presidents need staffers who are cynical and manipulative, and who urge them — as Max did for Captain von Trapp — to look out for themselves. And to remind presidents that their staffers are also going to look out for themselves, something that Max never hid. Yes, that is a dangerous package unless it comes with at least some ethical constraints.

Sandy from “Annie.” Every modern president but one had a White House pet, and all but three overall did. Correlation may not be causation, and I am not a person who likes pets, but none of the modern occupants of the White House who had pets were impeached twice (and may still face legal trouble). Oh, and one of the three earlier presidents without a pet was Andrew Johnson, who came even closer to being convicted and removed than Trump did. I’ll trust Harry Truman on this one.

Franklin Roosevelt — but not the one from “Annie.” No, I’m thinking of the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which has two FDRs. One frames the movie by giving George M. Cohan, played by James Cagney, an award. The other is played by Cagney/Cohan in a Broadway show about the president, in which Cagney/Cohan/Roosevelt dances energetically (!) and explains the trick he uses to get reporters to write what he wants. OK, if you had the greatest of modern presidents available, you could probably do better than to slot him in as press secretary, but then again he would be awfully good at it.

And let’s circle back to “The Music Man” and finish with Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn. There’s nothing presidents need more than information, and Mrs. Shinn, the mayor’s wife, is fully up to date on every single piece of gossip about every citizen of River City.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best items from political scientists this week:

• Want more about presidents and musicals? Sara Goodman has a terrific Twitter thread.

• Pamela Clouser McCann and Charles R. Shipan at the Monkey Cage on the Supreme Court’s radical EPA decision.

• Also at the Monkey Cage, Christine M. Slaughter and Chelsea N. Jones on how Dobnebs will affect Black women.

• Dave Hopkins on Dobbs and the midterms.

• Scott Lemieux on the nation after Dobbs.

• Matt Grossmann talks with Kevin Munger about the Baby Boomers.

• Lee Drutman on competitive elections.

• Rick Hasen on prosecuting Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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