No question about it, Richard Nixon cut the widest swath when it came to presidential campaign songs, both in terms of on-message lyrics and musical genres. Then again, he ran for President three times over the course of a dozen years.
The period of time marking his first campaign, in 1960, to his final such contest, in 1972, also happened against the backdrop of a radically shifting Popular Culture, a reflection of social and political change in which Nixon was himself involved. His pursuit of the presidency stemmed from the wholesome black-and-white Atomic Age into acid-colored Mod times and the ensuing long-haired hipper days. California native, first elected to Congress in 1946, then the Senate in 1950, it was from that latter elective body that 1952’s Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower chose him as running mate. Upon their victory, Vice President Nixon spent the next eight years, some of the Cold War’s most frigid, as the President’s personal emissary. In many Asian, Middle Eastern and South American nations who’d never had an official visit from an American official, Nixon became an important symbol of the United States to hundreds of thousands of people in those regions.
His persona through the 1950s, however, also carried with it the tough, often ruthless image impressed of him since his congressional years as a hard-line anti-Communist.
When Nixon ran for President in 1960 against John F. Kennedy, the most dramatic difference between them was in their biographies.
Kennedy was the Eastern Establishment prep-school and Harvard-educated millionaire son of a millionaire who seemed to glide with ease up each ladder rung in life.
Nixon, son of a western farmer and grocery-store owner, had struggled his way up, working through college, living sparely in a garage apartment. His story reflected the idealized “American Dream,” that nothing short of disciplined hard work would lead to success in any field. Finding the right campaign song to match his persona would be an evolving process.
Even with the matching novelty item of a clicker, the first Nixon 1960 campaign song, Click With Dick, fell flat. The more engaging one, with an emphatic march-like beat seemed to reflect the fighting toughness in Nixon’s character, and the lyrics also suggested voters find the same disciplined commitment to support him that he’d used to lift himself. Entitled Buckle Down With Nixon, the song’s music was actually a Pop Culture standard already.
The new lyrics touching on Nixon’s extensive foreign affairs experience being set to Buckle Down, Winsocki, written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin. The original song was used as a boy’s high school military academy football team anthem in Best Foot Forward, a theatrical musical comedy, produced by George Abbott, which ran on Broadway in 1941 for 326 performances, and starred Lucille Ball. The second act of the otherwise forgettable play opened with the rousing musical number which evoked not only Nixon’s famous love of football but memories of his own high school football team, which he played on. By the time he was making his first run for the presidency, however, Buckle Down was nearly two decades old and sounded extremely dated, suggesting a political perspective that looked back into the 40s and 50s and not ahead in the 60s.
In a recording made half a century later however Buckle Down was magnificently restored with just the right retro touch, performed by multi-media artist Brian Dewan on that ubiquitous instrument of the mid-Century – the acordion. Here goes:
Nixon may have lost the 1960 presidential election, but all was not lost for Buckle Down. After winning some recognition from the air time it got during the Nixon campaign, the music was again re-treaded with new lyrics by the New York City Department of Transportation. That agency put to use as the theme for a public-service television commercial urging citizens to prevent injury and death in their automobiles by using their safety-belts.
Effortlessly re-titled Buckle Up For Safety, it was familiar to generations of those living in the New York region through the 60s and 70s. Among them – Richard Nixon.
After losing the presidential election in 1960, Nixon returned home to California but his passion for politics overcame his wife’s wishes and advise from friends, leading him to run for Governor two years later. He lost again.
This time, he even told the press, he was through with politics. He moved his family to New York City in 1963, working as an attorney.
Dismayed by the conservative turn the Republican Party took when it nominated Arizona Governor Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964, Nixon nevertheless remained popular with moderates, who at that time still formed the majority of the Republican Party.
As he had so often before and would again so often in the years ahead, however, Nixon defeated those who judged him defeated. Early on during the 1968 primary season, Nixon began to pull ahead of his fellow Republican contenders.
At the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami, he won his party’s presidential nomination for a second time. With a campaign advertising campaign based on market-research, the candidate was packaged as the “New Nixon,” with tri-colored campaign products all bearing the official slogan, “Nixon’s The One.”
And with the “New Nixon,” there was a “New Nixon” song. Although, by 1968, her astounding popularity among a young audience was dated to the time of Nixon’s first presidential candidacy, pop singer Connie Francis still had a currency with them – now as adults.
She also recorded standards which appealed to older generations.
Volunteering her name on a roster of “Celebrities for Nixon,” and also recording a television commercial for the candidate which aired during the popular comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Connie Francis went a step further to record the song version of Nixon’s The One.
Like Kennedy’s 1960 High Hopes, recorded by Frank Sinatra, the Francis version of Nixon’s the One was sold as a 45.
Although its sounded like she might have performed on one of the era’s number of waning variety shows, like the Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show, it was decidedly “square,” a far more wholesome sound than the electric guitar vibe then influencing all musical genres.
Which was just fine for Nixon: it was the kind of music that appealed to the “Great Silent Majority” that would compose his primary political base. Here’s Connie Francis performing Nixon’s the One:
Victorious in 1968, by the time President Nixon was heading into his 1972 re-election campaign, the nation was even more bitterly divided over the Vietnam War he had promised to end four years earlier.
Anti-war protests on college campuses, widespread experimentation with drugs, and the mainstreaming of the “hippie” culture was more than enough for the Nixon campaign to shift its focus to a younger voter demographic.
Most importantly, however, was the successful passage of the 26th Amendment two years earlier, granting the right to vote to 18 year olds now – who were also of the age eligible to be drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.
Nixon had supported the change – but also wanted to make sure the campaign reached towards the older teenagers and young 20-somethings more directly.
For a President so often perceived in later years as being out of touch with the younger generation, Nixon’s campaign was not at all unhip.
Rather than ignore or avoid many other issues identified as being important to them, he explained his Administration’s “war on drugs,” and sweeping environmental protection legislation (which was truly radical and remains so today, even in the context of what his successors would initiate).
To match his well-coordinated campaign theme of “Nixon, Now More than Ever,” was the release of his third and certainly most swinging of campaign songs, called Nixon Now.
While to 2012 ears, it sounds like a bland version of “family band” music at the time, like that of the Partridges or the Cowsills, or even like the decidedly conservative feel-good group Up With People.
Still, it was far more swinging sound than any previous presidential campaign songs. than any previous not Lawrence Welk bubble music from the 50s.
It was not necessarily a standard recording played at Nixon ’72 rallies, but rather served largely as the background theme music for television commercials aimed at young voters, using edgy jump-cuts of various still pictures of his first term. And true to presidential campaign song tradition, its lyrics only vaguely referred to hard issues:
Nixon’s loss in 1960 made his rise again in 1968, sustained through 1972, a dramatic story, His great fall from those heights, ending with his resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal, already set in motion by the time voters heard Nixon Nowon television, was even more unbelievable. For many years to follow, almost nothing was associated with Nixon except Watergate and his resignation – even the three very different songs which had helped him soar before falling.
- Pat Nixon: First-Generation German-American & Her Lincoln Assassination Link (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Kennedy and Nixon in 1960: Debates That Changed the Game (life.time.com)
- Presidential Candidates Nixon and Kennedy (socyberty.com)
- Mrs. Nixon Didn’t Like Mitt Romney’s Mother (economicpolicyjournal.com)
- Presidential Debates 52 Years Later (freetech4teachers.com)