Vital Signs

Our Presidents in Song

Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr., share something: They are the only presidents since George Washington who were elected without having a campaign song written for them. Perhaps as a reflection of the vacuousness of their platforms, the two candidates used popular songs for their campaigns. George Bush surely made Woody Guthrie spin in his grave by adopting "This Land Is Your Land." Bill Clinton did better with Fleetwood Mac's apolitical "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."

George W. Bush, however, appears to be willing to learn from some of his father's mistakes: The clay he accepted the Republican nomination, his campaign released its original, official song. The country song says nothing about Bush, but it does extol working people. It is also one of the first presidential campaign songs to have an original tune, as opposed to the common practice of setting new words to well-known music.

Does a president's campaign song reveal something significant about the man, or the people who elected him? Judging by the compact disc Presidential Campaign Songs 1789-1996 from the Smithsonian Institution's Folkway series, the answer seems to be yes.

John Quincy Adams, who established the Smithsonian, would be delighted that his museum has restored an important part of American political history. He would also be appalled at the decline in character, patriotism, and education...

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