All the Presidents' Programmes: what the leader of the free world watches on TV

From 24 to Ed Sullivan, Homeland to The Waltons - we celebrate American Independence Day with some of the most powerful men in the world's favourite shows

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All the Presidents' Programmes: what the leader of the free world watches on TV
Written By
Tom Cole

It’s easy to forget that statesmen in high office are people like the rest of us; mere mortals who look forward to kicking off their brogues at the end of a hard day’s presiding, uncorking the Chablis and sitting back in front of the telly. But it’s true, as current president Barack Obama proves.

Talking to People magazine in the States, the US president revealed that the Obamas regularly settle down together to watch the innovative comedy series Modern Family, but when he’s in sole control of the remote, the leader of the free world prefers edgy dramas like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Homeland, the compelling, complex series about US foreign policy that began last night on Channel 4.

And he’s not alone, as the Clintons and most of the US administration are also said to be keen on Homeland, a fact that suggests Washington must have ground to a standstill every Sunday evening last October, when the show aired in the States.

If a man’s friends tell a lot about his character, then his TV viewing habits are likely to be equally illuminating. So I’ll leave it to you to make what you will of the viewing choices of the last ten fellows to make it to the top of the American political pile…

George W Bush: An avowed traditionalist, George W Bush repeatedly said in interviews that he didn’t watch much TV and was, in fact, fairly contemptuous of the medium. “They put an off button on the TV for a reason. Turn it off,” said Bush in one such media meeting. However, when he deigned to look at what the box had to offer, Bush was said to watch country music TV or Biography, the biographical sketch series, on A&E. But other than that, he told C-SPAN, he only had time for sports on the tube.

Bill Clinton: In 2006, President Clinton admitted that his favourite shows were Grey's Anatomy, Boston Legal and 24.  Here's the proof:

George Bush: While it’s not great practice to infer something from a negative, we know that the first George Bush to call the White House home certainly hinted at a taste for traditional, wholesome televisual fare when he said: “We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”

Ronald Reagan: Never mind just watching movies and TV, President Reagan’s early life saw him acting in mostly forgotten B-movies in the 1950s. But when he was catapulted into the Oval Office, the president apparently enjoyed watching the sitcom Family Ties, which, as one commentator archly noted, “may or may not be related to the fact that one of the show's lead characters admired Reagan.” Apparently so keen was Reagan on this show that he offered to make a guest appearance - “an offer pointedly ignored by the producers”.

Jimmy Carter: Defying the hick stereotype his peanut farming background might have suggested, Jimmy Carter revealed his sophisticated and romantic character when he let slip that his preferred kind of on-screen entertainment is classic movie drama, citing Casablanca and Gone with the Wind as his all-time favourites.

Gerald Ford: The presidential TV would have been found tuned to NBC during the time of Ford’s premiership, as both the president and the First Lady, Betty, were avowed fans of Movin’ On, a drama about two truckers and their life on the open road. Claude Atkins starred in the series, and on one occasion found himself staying in the same hotel as the president, who sent secret service men over to the actor when he was in the dining room and summoned him up to the presidential suite. Once there, the two men talked about Movin’ On for an hour, after which Ford said: “Now I can tell Betty I know more about Movin’ On than she does!”

Richard Nixon: While Tricky Dicky went on record as being a fan of 1970 movie Patton, about the controversial Second World War general George S Patton, his TV viewing habits are harder to trace.  However, we do know from the infamous archive of taped conversations that he watched All in the Family, and commented on an episode of the show in which he was referenced in the Watergate tapes. Other than that, he enjoyed watching sports, at times getting somewhat engrossed in the games, as you can hear in this clip:

Lyndon B Johnson:  The online LBJ library lists his favourite movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, John Wayne westerns and James Bond films.

John F Kennedy: Information regarding JFK’s taste in small-screen entertainment is scarce, but his taste in movies is well recorded and reveal the president to have been a fan of epic dramas like Spartacus, which came out three years before his assassination. However, the last film he’s thought to have seen before that fateful day in Dallas was Tom Jones, described by one source as “a bawdy 18th-century Henry Fielding sex romp that starred Albert Finney.”

Dwight D Eisenhower: TV sets became standardised and widely owned in America during the 1950s, leading to shows like I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best and the Ed Sullivan Show becoming massive ratings successes. Ike is said to have been a keen Ed Sullivan viewer - so keen, in fact, that he had Sullivan head up a “star committee” of talent to push for him on TV in the run-up to the 1956 presidential election.

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