Who’s Got Rhythm?

Songs Have Tried to Capture the Soul of Every Presidential Campaign. So What Would Seem Right This Year?

National correspondent Vic Gold's favorite campaign song is "Harding, You're the Man for Us."

Hello, Lyndon! Well, hello, Lyndon! We'd be proud to have you back where you belong.

You're lookin' swell, Lyndon, we can tell, Lyndon,

You're still glowin', you're still crowin',

You're still goin' strong . . .

–Democratic campaign song, 1964 (to the tune of "Hello, Dolly!")

 

Like the smoke-filled room, the presidential campaign song is a thing of the past. Or seems to be. Too bad. As an old political-song buff I agree with musicologist Irwin Silber, who tells us in Songs America Voted By that campaign tunes are "an indispensable part of the hype and hoopla" of elections.

Performed by show-biz personalities like Carol Channing ("Hello, Lyndon"), Irving Berlin ("I Like Ike"), and Kennedy backer Frank Sinatra ("High Hopes"), the songs served, Silber writes, "as image-makers for presidential candidates" before TV and professional spin doctors took over the job.

Sometimes they even helped win presidential elections. In 1948, with most Democrats convinced he had no chance to win, Harry Truman whistle-stopped across the country. At some train stops, local party leaders didn't even show up to rouse the crowd before Truman spoke.

But a band was there, if only the local high-school band to greet the President's arrival with an oompah rendition of Truman's campaign song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

FDR had his New Deal,

And Truman now will follow through,

My country's wild about Harry,

And Harry's wild about, cannot do without,

Both my country and me.

After which Truman would make one of his "give 'em hell" speeches and send the crowd home feeling as if it had just heard anything but a loser.

Not all campaign songs produced surprise winners. In 1936 the Hearst newspaper chain offered a $1,000 prize to the reader who submitted the best new words to "Oh! Susannah" to help the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon. The winning entry:

Oh, he comes from out of Kansas

With a fervor good to see,

And he's going to the White House

With the help of you and me.

Oh, Alf Landon! Just you wait and you will see,

We'll put you in the White House

Where you really ought to be.

"Oh, Alf Landon!" was played 1,800 times at the Republican convention that year, but it did Landon little good outside Maine and Vermont–the only states he carried in his loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt. >

No surprise there, since Republicans, in four elections, couldn't come up with a campaign song to match Roosevelt's "Happy Days Are Here Again." In fact, with the exception of Berlin's "I Like Ike," the GOP over the years can fairly be described as the party with a tin ear.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the music. Here's the GOP's answer to Kennedy's catchy "High Hopes" in Richard Nixon's losing 1960 campaign:

Come on and click with Dick,

The one that none can lick.

He's a man of peace and reason

For the job in every season.

 

It took five more elections for republicans to come up with a presidential campaign tune to rival anything the Dem-ocrats had to offer–and then only by cribbing "Happy Days Are Here Again" for Ronald Reagan's 1980 run for the White House.

Party aside, the old Roosevelt song captured, in Irwin Silber's phrase, "the emotional essence" of the Reagan campaign.

Which brings us, two decades later, to ask what, if any, musical riffs could capture the essence of this year's presidential hopefuls. From an old political-song buff, a few suggestions to the Gore and Bush campaigns:

For Rapmaster Al, eager to shed his media image as Mr. Cardboard, what better way to get down and funky than with Jermaine Dupri's "Money Ain't a Thang"?

I make the big moves, do the big go,

Take some groups, turn 'em into big dough.

I'm the truth like air, in a Benz or a Lexus,

Got more to my game than that —- from Texas.

But I don't like it if the bell don't ring,

Just drop a little paper–though money ain't a thang.

And for Lone Star George, in his high leather boots and wide-brimmed Stetson, some play on Randy Travis's "Point of Light." Or better yet, on George Strait's "So Much Like My Dad":

You always told me, Momma,

I was so much like my dad.

Well here's a little breakin' news

I know will make you glad.

I'm headin' off to Washington

For our good ol' USA,

But first I've gotta kick

A little — along the way.

And if George doesn't? No problem, at least not musically. Just a sagebrush segue to the fallback song of John McCain, Bill Bradley, and all losing White House hopefuls this or any year–Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." 

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