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Songs in the Key of Presidency

CAMPAIGN 2000 | COLUMN ONE

From 'Little Know Ye Who's Coming' to 'Crazy,' candidates hope their anthems grab some hearts and ears. This year's campaign themes both strike the same chord.

October 11, 2000|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If history were written in the sheet music of presidential campaign songs, every schoolchild would know that Abraham Lincoln was a lying baboon, Martin Van Buren worshiped Satan and Herbert Hoover's name was synonymous with prosperity.

The presidential campaign song has a grand, bizarre tradition, but the role of the themes has changed dramatically in the years since Van Buren was bedeviled in verse. Once laced with personality and venom, the songs have become vague, rosy anthems.

Which brings us to the theme songs of George W. Bush and Al Gore. What deep truths do they reveal about our next leader in chief?

Well, whoever wins will have a profound appreciation of truckers.

Both campaigns have chosen songs that celebrate working-class heroism--drivers, soldiers and farmers--and sentimental optimism. To many ears, the songs are surprisingly similar. "Makes you wonder if it's not a coincidence," sniffs Michael Been, writer of the 1989 rock song "Let the Day Begin" that became Gore's theme. "Our song came first; maybe they ripped it off."

An unkind accusation, but then there have been plenty of those in the history of presidential campaign songs, arguably perfected in the 1836 theme warning voters that Van Buren "moves at Satan's beck and nod" and was a politician "who heeds not man, who heeds not God."

For all the blandness of today's fare, a song occasionally becomes a telling campaign touchstone, the perfect example being Bill Clinton's use of Fleetwood Mac's mid-1970s pop song "Don't Stop." Combining nostalgia with the hopeful line "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow," it musically encoded both Clinton's baby-boomer target audience and his message.

And even in this well-spun political age, some quirky selections still slip through. Who can forget a beaming Ross Perot waltzing onstage after his 1992 defeat while the speakers blasted his theme, Patsy Cline's recording of "Crazy"?

The hope of a campaign is to tap into a song that cuts through and becomes defining shorthand for a political moment, the way "Happy Days Are Here Again" buoyed Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression. There have also been many attempts to sprinkle some celebrity on a candidacy by tapping big-name talent, from Stephen Foster and Al Jolson to Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra.

This year, however, the songs are relatively anonymous, last-minute selections and come from artists who are neither superstars nor, it turns out, particularly committed to the candidates invoking their handiwork.

Gore's "Let the Day Begin" was recorded by a defunct rock band named the Call, while Bush's handlers have picked "We the People," a slice of Southern rock from country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, he of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame.

Los Angeles-based songwriter Been, who was the lead singer of the Call, says no one from the Gore campaign ever called him to say the song would be a campaign centerpiece. He found out only when his phone answering machine clogged with messages from friends who watched the Democratic convention.

"It came out of the blue," says Been. "I would have liked if they asked. But my politics are closer to Gore. If it was Bush that used it, to be honest, I would have called to tell them I had a problem."

The Cyrus song was offered to both campaigns as a theme by the country singer's label, Sony's Monument Records, which releases the song this month on the album "Southern Rain." "We the People," which features Waylon Jennings and a raft of guest singers, includes the line: "We pay the taxes, we pay the bills, so they better pay attention on Capitol Hill."

Cyrus, stung through the years by the perception of him as a one-hit wonder, hopes Bush's use of the song will deliver another monster hit like "Achy Breaky Heart." Still, when the campaign called to ask for "We the People," Cyrus thought twice.

"It's struck me as different because it's a working people's song, y'know, and I've never really thought of the Republicans as the party of the working people," he said. "Am I wrong?"

His Democratic father has an answer. Ron Cyrus, a former state lawmaker and union leader in Kentucky, told reporters last month that the song is inappropriate for the GOP. "That," he said, "is a Democrat song."

Billy Ray Cyrus says he is a "lifelong" Democrat, which is why he performed at Clinton campaign events back in their shared glory year of 1992. He even danced beside the stiff-legged Gore on stage at the inaugural celebration.

But that's all history now--Cyrus is singing and voting for Bush, right?

"Uh, well, I'm waiting for the debates," he said, carefully choosing his words. "There's a whole lot of election to go."

In fact, Cyrus says he would not rule out performing the official Bush song at a Gore event if asked, a prospect that might give a certain Texas governor an achy breaky heart. Cyrus says the song is really just an endorsement of "getting the American people to use their freedom to vote. . . . I wish both campaigns would use it."

Now that would be a first.

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