The Last Original Campaign Song: Jerry Ford’s Bicentennial Tune

Running for his own full term after inheriting the presidency when Nixon resigned, Ford opened the nation’s Bicentennial celebration on Patriot’s Day in Lexington, Massachusetts on April 18, 1976.

Silversun Pickups & Romney.

Yesterday, it was learned that The Silversun Pickups directed its attorney to request that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stop using its  song “Panic Switch,” as a campaign song, for political reasons. In the last quarter of a century, this is hardly the first time that a contemporary musical performing artist or group has requested that various political candidates stop using its original music at rallies and events, even given fair use copyright laws or a “blanket licensing agreement.”

The issue raises an obvious question. Why don’t candidates hire composers to write original campaign songs?

Certainly not all previous presidential candidates had original songs. Articles here have told the story of how the hit song Hello Dolly was adapted and sung by the Broadway star Carol Channing for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign, and how composer Irving Berlin made a similar gesture for Dwight Eisenhower‘s 1952 campaign with They Like Ike. Others, from McKinley to JFK used existing popular music (with composer cooperation). Yet ever since Thomas Jefferson’s Jefferson and Liberty (1800), many candidates have either commissioned or had offered to them original campaign music.

Ford campaign literature.

 

Carter’s green campaign branding.

The last time originally-composed music was used as the official song of both parties’ presidential campaigns, was for the 1976  Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and his rival, incumbent Republican President Gerald R. Ford, during that brief sweet spot of the Me Decade. Both men also had campaign songs which dovetailed into the general themes of their distinctive campaigns. In contrast to Carter’s duo-toned green-white brand and country music song, there was no mistaking Ford’s campaign branding colors and upbeat music. They were inseparable from those of the nation he ran. And that year’s national obsession.

One of Ford’s more popular visual-prompt campaign buttons, playing on the name he shared with the popular car manufacturer.

In the arena of campaign music, President Ford had a far catchier if cornier song entitled I’m Feeling Good About America, composed by a public relations professional by the name of Bob Gardner.  A former speechwriter to Ford adviser Donald Rumsfeld when he was working at the Cost of Living Council, Gardner became one of a quartet of advertising executives who ran the Ford campaign.

Reagan congratulates Ford at the convention podium.

The song began hitting the nation’s radio and television airwaves just after the National Republican Convention which nominated the moderate Ford over the conservative former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Images used in the television commercials which played the song made overt use of the friendly, accessible and photogenic First Family members who were active on the campaign trail.

Ford on July 4th during the Operation Sail of international vessels in New York Harbor, flocking the Statue of Liberty.

There were the three presidential children who’d lived at the White House – Jack Ford (who also worked on his father’s re-election campaign staff), Steve Ford (who drove an RV to western states and campaigned town to town) and Susan Ford (a professional photographer then, who also snapped away at events and often joined her mother), and of course, the enormously popular First Lady Betty Ford who was especially seen as a “cross-over” element appealing to undecided, independent and even liberal Democratic voters because of her political views. And while she did not hit the campaign trail, even the First Dog, a golden retriever by the name of Liberty is seen giving a big, friendly smile in the primary campaign commercial which used I’m Feeling Good About America with a voice-over message.

Betty Ford introduces her son Steve to voters in Downey, California in October 1976.

Susan Ford with her parents and First Dog Liberty who gave birth to pups in the White House.

Betty Ford campaigns in Texas.

The accessible Fords in Hawaii. (Kennerly)

Saying he never told his parents outright that he smoked pot, Jack Ford admitting that he discussed the issue with his mom.

Of course, the President’s own simple, rugged honesty, his modest beginnings and effort to heal the nation from the psychic wounds of the Watergate scandal which had led to President Nixon’s resignation and Vice President Ford‘s assumption of the office barely two years before the convention were part of the “selling” in the campaign theme. Not unlike Carter’s campaign, which repeated the message of him being a man of the earth, a peanut farmer who understood the problems of “regular people,” Ford was shown as the suburban dad and friend to small businessmen that he truly was.

President Ford rings the Liberty Bell on Bicentennial Day.

But more than any one chord which the song struck, it was the upbeat yet mellow sort of patriotism spurred by that year’s Bicentennial celebration across the land. The fact that the nation was no longer mired in Vietnam or any other foreign war was, the Ford campaign seemed to suggest, but the first of many hopeful signs that would soon lead to  consumer confidence and an improved economy, despite record inflation and gas shortages. In fact, some of that proved real. Remarkably, Ford closed in on Carter’s lead by an unprecedented 35 points and insisted afterwards that had he had another week or two of campaigning, he surely would have eked out the victory.

A Ford campaign button playing off the popular 70s TV sitcom Happy Days character of The Fonzie.

And while I’m Feeling Good About America had a sort of early-70s and square Up, Up With People vibe, the ad men who tweaked the music for the television commercial did flair it with a bit of a mid-70s funky groove at the end, barely audible but surely picked up subliminally by viewers, riffing on a sitcomish sound, like those heard in the theme songs of shows like Good Times or Maude.

In fact, Time magazine declared that I’m Feeling Good About America was the “jingle that almost won the election.”

In the final days of the campaign, Ford closed a 35 point lead of Carter’s.


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Jimmy Carter, Politics, Presidential Campaign Music, Presidents

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2 replies »

  1. Wow, if that Ford “jingle” was played today, how it would make people laugh and cringe at the same time, and the voice over, whoa, how corny! We have certainly come a long way since then, maybe that’s why Romney is trying to use a bands song to try and interest young or current in touch voters, with something they relate to. But I think too many people are tired of the easy way out of politians to just up and use someone else hard labor and creativity for there own gains. Even though it may have given the band more exposure, the band is working on it’s own to achieve it the way it decides. Well, in any case it has gotten them some exposure now.
    Great and insightful article!

    • I agree with you entirely. That’s why it’s too bad the campaigns don’t commission an original song from a musical artist – on the other hand, too many issues and problems can no longer be reduced to a simple song along the lines of a popularity contest. I don’t think people will vote for or against anyone anymore simply based on a musical or celebrity endorsement. Thanks for the comment. Appreciate it.

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