Musicians and Politicians : Unlikely Bedfellows

The story goes like this: During the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan’s campaign team decided that the former California governor needed to court the youth vote. The song “Born in the USA” was popular at the time, and so naturally they figured that the connection with Bruce Springsteen and a song that they perceived as a patriotic rallying cry would make an ideal theme song to accompany Reagan’s rousing rhetoric. Accordingly, Reagan and his wife Nancy went backstage after one particular Springsteen performance and waited patiently outside the star’s dressing room to ask his permission.

Always there to prompt him, Nancy leaned over and whispered to Ronnie, “Now dear, do you know who ‘The Boss’ is?,” she asked, referring to Springsteen’s well-known nickname.

“Why of course,” he replied. “You’re The Boss, Mommy!”

Okay, there might have been some creative embellishment inserted in that story, but regardless, music and politics have always made strange bedfellows. Even when they share the same coach, it’s always awkward when they fumbling over positioning. Still, there are cases where the two find common ground. Here are a few examples:

Ronald Reagan: Aside from their failed attempt at wooing Mr. Springsteen -- they’d leave it to New Jersey governor Chris Christy when he declared his man crush for Bruce several decades later -- it turns out that Ronnie and Nancy were big Beach Boys fans. So when James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, announced in April 1983 that he was vetoing the choice of the Beach Boys as headliners for the Capitol’s annual Fourth of July celebration, he aroused the ire of the entire nation, and Nancy Reagan in particular. She publicly rebuked Watt for insisting that they lacked a wholesome image and encouraged drug use and alcoholism. However by the time Watt reversed himself, it was too late. The resulting publicity had already brought the band an offer to play Atlantic City instead. For their efforts, the Reagans got a cozy group photo as consolation.

Bill Clinton: The future president’s appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 presidential campaign featured him performing “Heartbreak Hotel” on saxophone, which was not surprising considering the fact that he briefly considered a music career before going into politics. He later donated the instrument to the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. Nevertheless, that single scenario immediately established his hip image and the fact that he couldn’t resist a good blow whenever the occasion was offered.

Richard Nixon: Nixon’s love of piano playing was well known, and while he never realized his ambition of becoming an accomplished musician, he did have ample opportunity to show off his skills both on television and at the Grand Ole Opry. He even composed several concertos. Still, Nixon’s best known musical connection came with White House visit from The King himself, Elvis Presley, who had written the president a long letter explaining why he should be made a “Federal Agent at Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. After all, Elvis had extensive knowledge on that subject. The famous photos that were taken during that fateful meeting have become the most requested viewing in the National Archives, surpassing even the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 

Mike Huckabee: The former governor of Arkansas, presidential candidate and Fox News host, is an avid guitar enthusiast and even plays bass in a band called Capitol Offense. He also calls himself a huge fan of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and even tried to get Keef as a guest on his show “Huckabee.” Hoping to tempt him, he used his gubernatorial powers to pardon the renegade rocker for his reckless driving conviction in 1975, when Richards and co-conspirator Ron Wood were arrested in Fordoyce Arkansas driving in a car that contained a huge cache of drugs. Although the two were briefly detained, their lawyer got them off on a mere misdemeanor charge, leading Richards to claim that Huckabee’s so-called pardon was nothing more than a political ploy.

Lamar Alexander: The former Tennessee governor and onetime presidential wannabe is widely recognized as an accomplished pianist who was adept at both classical and country music. In 2007, he contributed to a re-recording of Patti Page’s beloved “Tennessee Waltz,” and later performed with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, his playing skills never gained him wider recognition, but an east Tennessee highway named in his honor reflects his love for his roots... and his routes.

Robert Byrd: As one of the longest serving members of Congress, the late West Virginia senator made a remarkable transition over the course of his political career, going from being an avid supporter of the KKK to a fervent advocate for civil rights. He was also an acclaimed fiddle player, taking the name “Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd” early in his career. In 1978, he recorded a bluegrass album called U.S. Senator Robert Byrd: Mountain Fiddler. His fiddling skills gained fame in Washington, and later he went on to perform at the Kennedy Center and the Grand Ole Opry. Clearly, he wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.”

Jerry Brown: The California governor has never demonstrated any musical ability, but he did show he had excellent taste when he dated singer Linda Ronstadt during his early term in the state capitol.  According to Ronstadt’s autobiography, the two “had a lot of fun for a number of years. He was smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs, and lived his life carefully, with a great deal of discipline.” “Neither of us ever suffered under the delusion that we would like to share each other’s lives,” she goes on. “I would have found his life too restrictive, and he would have found mine entirely chaotic. Eventually we went our separate ways and embraced things that resonated with us as different individuals.” Or, as the title of one of her early hots suggested, each traveled to the beat of a “different drum.”

Jon Huntsman: Huntsman was clearly destined for success early on. His father was a prominent businessman and philanthropist, and the younger Huntsman went on to become governor of Utah, ambassador to China and a member of five presidential administrations. When he ran for president during the Republican primaries of 2012, his moderate, uncompromising stance found him doomed to failure due to the party’s overly conservative sentiments. Nevertheless, Huntsman has admitted that his original dream was to be a rock star, and when he dropped out of his senior year of high school just before graduation, he started a stint as a keyboard player in a band called Wizard. Apparently the real wizardry involved was his talent for public service.

John Hall: Hall gained famed early on as a member of the band Orleans, whose hits “Still the One” and “Dance With Me” established him as a legitimate hit maker and a rocker of national repute. However it was his desire to crusade for a cause that led him to rally against nuclear proliferation and later enter politics -- first as a member of his local legislature in Upstate New York and then as a member of the New York Board of Education. He was later elected to the House of Representatives from New York’s 19th congressional district, serving from 2007 to 2011. Ironically, the campaigns of both George W. Bush and John McCain used the song “Still the One” in their campaigns without permission and were forced to drop it after Hall issued a protest. Had he won reelection in 2010, Hall would be “still the one” holding office himself. 

Barrack Obama: President Obama may be the most musically inclined president of all time, at least in terms of his enthusiasm. While his attempt to imitate Al Green during a public appearance fell flat -- literally as well as figuratively, his close ties to a number of musicians provides him a kind of musical mantra. He awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan, attended the Kennedy Center Honors when Led Zeppelin were inducted and has had numerous artists, including Paul McCartney perform at the WHite House. WHo said there were no presidential perks? Rock on Barrack!