It didn’t start out as his – but like so much else, Franklin Roosevelt claimed it for himself because he saw its value of association.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, his wife’s first cousin, loved telling the story of a couple in Hyde Park, New York who were unable to fight a large crowd blocking their entrance into a small Episcopalian Church they attended while stopping in the Hudson River Valley town one Sunday. When the husband asked someone in the crowd who could possibly be attending the service to draw such a cluster of onlookers, an enthusiastic fellow piped up, “It’s the President’s church!” Pushing her way in, the wife snarled back, “It used to be God’s!”
When Alice told President Franklin D. Roosevelt this latest story about his arrogance, he cocked his head back and let out a trademark roar of laughter, adding, “But it is my church!”
He had a testier encounter with former First Lady Edith Wilson when she found out he’d bought an antique desk knowing full well that she had told the U.S. Navy to put it aside for her to buy. “That’s my desk!” she snapped at him, demanding he sell it to her. He laughingly quipped back at her, “No it is not. It’s mine now.”
F.D.R. was unapologetic about laying claim to what he wanted when he saw it – or heard it.
The quality of presidential campaign songs seem to cycle.
Through most of the 19th century, old standards like Yankee Doodle were reset with clumsy lyrics to promote presidential candidates.
By the turn of the 20th century, original campaign songs were being composed by Tin Pan Alley musicians and even sold in the form of sheet-music.
F.D.R.’s 1932 presidential campaign marked the start of a three decade cycle of appropriating hit songs from Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals: Truman’s I’m Just Wild About Harry, Eisenhower’s They Like Ike, Kennedy’s High Hopes and LBJ’s Hello Lyndon!
At that year’s colorful Democratic convention, with aviator Amelia Earhart, mogul Joseph P. Kennedy, humorist Will Rogers and other luminaries in attendance, Roosevelt became the first to enter the arena to accept his nomination. It was what happened at the end of his speech, however, that proved to be music to the ears of Democrats for generations.
Just as applause rose for Roosevelt, the band near the main stage podium broke out into a fast and familiar song, fueling a giddy sense of hope among delegates, helping them – and eventually the nation’s voters – believe they about to become a lot happier than they’d been after four years of the Great Depression.
The song had also been around for four years, written in 1929 by Milton Ager with lyrics by Jack Yellen, and recorded two months after the Wall Street Crash, by the Leo Reisman Orchestra, and sung by Lou Levin. It was after the release of the feature film Chasing Rainbows (1930), which used the song, however, that the mass appeal of Happy Days Are Here Again was first realized.
Roosevelt loved it the moment he heard it, and asked Democratic National Committee to always have a copy of the record at his rallies, so it could be played on a portable phonograph and broadcast through a loudspeaker system to crowds of voters. Whether F.D.R. was being driven in an open-car down a small-town’s Main Street on his way to a campaign event or waving goodbye from the back platform of a whistlestop train tour, he always arrived and left, preceded and followed by that song.
After F.D.R.’s Election Day victory, the song may have been playing its welcome out, but within one month of his 1933 Inauguration, Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which removed the U.S. ban on domestic beer sales, he signed it immediately and declared, “This would be a good time for a beer!”
The beginning of the end of Prohibition was a moment of joy for Americans, a majority of whom were drinkers. And nothing better captured the new mood and gave voice to their celebratory feelings than did that song with which the man who liberated beer had been elected. New vocalists tried to prove their talent by crooning it from radio-show ballrooms, choruses of longshoreman whistled it in corner bars and hospital nurses quietly hummed it while folding laundry. It was Happy Days Are Here Again – and again, and again. And again.
Even Republicans voting for President Hoover against F.D.R., could do like Democrats and sing Happy Days Are Here Again, to mark the bipartisan party.
By the time he was mounting his 1936 re-election campaign, however, Roosevelt made it quite clear that song was his. Once again he had it used at his campaign rallies and other appearances. And once again, he won with it.
As he would, again, in another four years. Yes – another. In 1940, F.D.R. not only outraged Republicans but offended even may Democrats when he thumbed his nose as the presidential honor system set by George Washington and arrogantly asserted his right to run for a third term as the nation’s leader. No President had ever done so before – or since.
Hearing that song – again, at a time when it as preparing for the unspoken but seemingly inevitable entry into World War II, had obviously less value as a harbinger of happy days than as the musical cue for that man in the White House to step onto the international stage and guide his country through another harrowing period of sorrow and struggle.
In making the third-term run, however, Republicans believed Roosevelt had just handed them all the proof they needed that he was hell bent on paradoxically using democracy to establish a sort of Yankee dictatorship.
Supporters reacted by generally making the case that no other potential president could possibly be as knowledgeable yet nuanced in the art of forging necessary foreign alliances without compromising security.
Nonsense, said those enraged by what they identified as F.D.R.’s propaganda tactics, some even going so far as to suggest that he would lead the U.S. into the war merely to justify his hold on another four years of power. Arguments within even families broke out over the Third-Term controversy. Often reduced to just a few words, like some Swing Era Twitter, the sassy slogans fit perfectly onto campaign-size buttons, without pictures.
The best one may have come from within the bickering Roosevelt family circle itself Quipped Cousin Alice Longworth, “No man is good three times.”
Extreme Roosevelt haters suspected that his defiance of presidential custom was but the first stage in advancing his conspiratorial plot to run the federal government as a Democratic Dictatorship. Hearing his Happy Days Are Here Again played for months on end until Election Day for the the third time in eight years,might have been aggravated them.
Hearing it played again just two months later, not at a political rally but at his dignified January 20, 1941 Inauguration Day ceremony, an event which conveyed to the world the new national investiture of power (including a new Vice President believed to be even more “Socialist” than him) the reactionaries were outrightly alarmed. They need not be. This time, Happy Days Are Here Again was less about him and more about the nation’s people.
On that Inauguration Day, the first to take place on the constitutionally-changed date of January 20, some rare color home movies were made by his son-in-law John Boettiger, the husband of First Daughter Anna Roosevelt. Last year, the rare color home movie was donated by her three children to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, and they did so by relinquishing the copyright and granting it to the American people, making it public domain material. which saved and preserved it as public domain material. Among those glimpsed in it are the outgoing and incoming Vice Presidents, John N. Garner and Henry Wallace, Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes making small-talk with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (seen from behind), and First Son, FDR, Jr. and his wife Ethel Dupont, a member of the decidedly Republican Dupont clan of Delaware.
The images almost seems like any family gathering for an important event, like a christening or wedding: there’s a smiling granddaughter among the officials and at one point First Son Jimmy, in his formal captain’s uniform, busts into a grin and waves at his brother-in-law. It is almost easy to forget that within months of the home movie, “Pop,” who silently repeats some words at the front of the grandstand, will lead the United States into a war that will affect the fate of tens of millions of the people around the world, and establish his own country as the undisputed leader of the free world in the post-war era.
In this excerpt, just as the chorus breaks into the Happy Days Are Here Again lyrics, F.D.R. comes through the U.S. Capitol Building door onto the outdoor grandstand. He is not smiling at all. Rather, his expression is obviously pained, a reaction to the physical agony of shifting his hips from side to side in order to swing his useless legs, encased in heavy steel braces, and simulate the visual impression that he was still somehow, miraculously able to walk .
In the period following his contraction of polio in 1923, rendering his legs forever disabled, F.D.R. had developed this technique himself to convey a finely-honed public persona. By the time he made his appearance at the 1932 convention which first nominated him, during the height of the Great Depression, he had convinced delegates, then voters and eventually the nation and world that he possessed such a crushing strength that, despite the publicly-acknowledged fact of his polio, he somehow defied the laws of nature. In 2012, it is astounding to realize that during the twelve years of his presidency, there was not one press photograph or newsreel which showed his complete reliance on a wheelchair as the only means of independent movement within the White House. It gives stark context to the theatrics of his always keeping his head in an upward glance of promise and perpetually beaming a smile while in public, tightly jaw-clenching his long, cigarette holder so it was kept thrust in an angle to the sky. Like his making Happy Days Are Here Again his very own song, it was all part of the illusion of confident elan he had crafted to psychologically reassure the American people that his presidency had already made their days happy again. And all of this, including the sight of him grimacing down the aisle to be sworn-in a third time as President, perhaps offers a better understanding of just why F.D.R. quickly seized as his own not only whatever it was he thought might bolster his prestige but help the people he was chosen to lead.
Here is a recording of Happy Days Are Here Again as it would have been first heard on the radio in association with him in 1932 yet still relevant against the visual pairing of the Roosevelt of 1941:
Happy Days Are Here Again was heard in connection with F.D.R. at the 1944 National Democratic Convention which nominated him for a fourth and final time. By then, it was obvious even to the public how the toll of the presidency had ravaged him. He died less than three months after his fourth Inauguration in 1945.
Coincidentally or not, a peculiar pattern was soon set in motion when it came to playing Happy Days Are Here Again at the Democratic conventions which followed those of Roosevelt.
Perhaps because it may have seemed arrogant to presume to be as monumental a President as him, his song was not played at the 1948, 1964, 1980 and 1996 National Democratic Conventions – all of which nominated incumbent Presidents as the party’s candidate (Truman, L.B.J. Carter, Clinton). Nor was it known to be played at the Democratic Conventions held in 1952, 1960 or 1968, election years when there was no incumbent President of either party seeking re-election.
Happy Days Are Here Again, however, was again heard at the Democratic National Conventions of 1956, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992, and 2004, when the nominated Democratic candidates (Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, John Kerry) were waging political battles to unseat the powers of incumbent Presidents (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, H. Bush and W. Bush, respectively) – just as it had first been played when F.D.R. was seeking to defeat incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover.
In some respects, the tone and lyrics of no other presidential campaign song more personally capture the interior life of a President who never gave even his wife and children a glimpse into his emotions than does Happy Days Are Here Again for Franklin D. Roosevelt. With so many others suffering during the Great Depression and World War II, his fighting his refusal to indulge his own fears or express self-pity over his disability had nothing to do with policy. Yet it had everything to do with moving the American people to believe in, trust and support him.
And nothing better renewed his own joyful determination that did hearing his Happy Days Are Here Again.
It was proof positive not only of the need for a President to connect on a personally intimate level with the people (even an aristocratic millionaire like F.D.R.) but also of the potential power of one good song.
Since the Roosevelt years, Happy Days Are Here Again has been heard in dozens of movies, even one as recently as 2006. It’s been re-interpreted by a wide range of vocal styling, perhaps most famously by Barbra Streisand in 1962, who gave it a down-tempo, reflective tone which alone managed to ironically flip the meaning of the song.
No matter how it’s been played or by whom, or even how many generations have already come and gone since he was last around, whenever Happy Days Are Here Again echoes through a cavernous convention, That Man seems to be haunting the rafters, his spirit evoked, the purpose of his efforts revived.
- Sinatra at Jack’s Back: The John F. Kennedy 1960 Campaign Song (carlanthonyonline.com)
- When Three Presidents Ran Against Each Other But Whiskey Won the Election: The 1912 Campaign Songs (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Obama Must Remake Political Persona for Any Second Term (bloomberg.com)
- Hiltzik: New deal provided a social bond for Americans (newsday.com)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Announces the Launch of New Web Site on Historic Day (prweb.com)
- FDR Accepts The Nomination – 1932 Democratic Convention – Past Daily Reference Room (pastdaily.com)
- TCM to Air Film Intended to Help FDR Become Dictator (pjmedia.com)
- Summoning The Spirit Of F.D.R. And Government ‘For The People’ (addictinginfo.org)
- N.Y. Film Festival review: “Hyde Park on Hudson” (cbsnews.com)