The Echo & Dissonance of George Bush’s 1988 Campaign Music

George Bush campaigning for President in 1988.

Although the 41st President George Bush had known and been involved in the presidential campaigns of his Republican predecessors since Dwight D. Eisenhower, his own in 1988 was singularly distinct for the echo rather than sounds of a strongly defining campaign song or musical theme.

Bush after his Super Tuesday wins during the 1988 Republican primaries.

Referred to as “George H.W. Bush” or sometimes “George H. Bush” to make him distinct from his son George W. Bush ever since the latter became President in 2001, at the time of his campaign and presidency he was always simply known as George Bush. There seems to be no simple answer, however, to why there was more echo than sound to his 1988 campaign.

George Bush meets with former President Eisenhower at the time of the former’s first congressional campaign in 1966.

Unlike Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon, Bush was particularly close to anyone in the entertainment or recording industry who might have suggested the perfect song to be adapted or composed an original piece around which supporters could rally. Unlike all the Presidents before him going back to Eisenhower, George Bush lacked a defining regionality. He was born in Massachusetts, raised in Connecticut, had a family summer home in Maine, lived in California and settled in Texas. The playing of a state-associated piece like the Missouri Waltz (as was done for Truman, even though he hated the song) or California, Here I Come (which Reagan used and loved) wouldn’t work for Bush.

Bush and Reagan at a winter 1980 luncheon at the time they were running against each other for the Republican presidential nomination.

Although twice elected as Reagan’s Vice President in 1980 and 1984, by the time of his own 1988 nomination as the Republican presidential candidate, it had been almost twenty years since he’d campaigned for his own office straight through to Election Day for national office (he’d run for but lost the 1980 Republican nomination to Reagan).

Perhaps using music to help define himself to the public was an aspect of campaign publicity of which Bush was unaware or thought irrelevant.

Bush on the night of his 1988 nomination in New Orleans.

Bush was nominated at the Republican National Convention in mid-August, 1988. Hosted in New Orleans, it may have been the partying reputation of the “Big Easy” which led to someone in his campaign organization choosing a newly-released novelty song to use as the first-known theme music for Bush.

The Bush campaign got its first campaign song from the soundtrack of the movie Cocktail, which starred Tom Cruise, and opened two weeks before the Republican Convention.

The nation had first heard the song just two weeks earlier, in the movie Cocktail, which opened on July 29, and it hit the number 88 place on Billboard’s Hot 100 list of music. When it was released as a single a month later, it became the most popular song in the U.S., taking the number one spot. With its catchy reggae sound and easy-going lyrics, it was called Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

The novelty wall plaque Big Mouth Billy Bass also sang the song used as the first Bush campaign song.

The song got constant airplay and was soon being heard on television commercials and was even recorded to be used in a popular novelty item of the era, the animatronic singing toy bass fish, known as Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Barbara Bush was often quoted as saying she chose to always simply "be happy."

Barbara Bush.

George Bush never mentioned liking or disliking the song, but it may have  been chosen by an aide because it reflected the stated philosophy of his wife Barbara Bush who often observed that all people ultimately have a simple choice to “be happy” in response to the unexpected challenges of life. As the campaign went into overdrive after Labor Day, the sound of Don’t Worry, Be Happy was being played at George Bush rallies – but quickly enough created a lot more dissonance with its composer and singer Bobby McFerrin.

He wasn’t happy. He was a Democrat.

The hit single Don’t Worry, Be Happy album cover with its creator Bobby McFerrin.

Bush’s use of Don’t Worry, Be Happy was entirely legal, coming under the Fair Usage clause of copyright law, but McFerrin publicly protested its use nonetheless and made his viewpoint clear by ceasing to perform the song in concert while Bush was using it and declaring he would vote against Bush.

There was another good reason for Bush to stop using it. When the song’s accompanying music video was released in September it not only was set in a formal Oval Office-like room with a character in top hat and formal clothing which suggests a President, the narrative focuses with a touch of ironic sarcasm on a man who becomes homeless but is implored to somehow “don’t worry, be happy.”  Here it is:

The incident was the first time in presidential history that a candidate was essentially rebuked by a performing artist for using their work as campaign music. During a 1984 campaign stop in New Jersey, Reagan had made reference in a speech to Born in the USA musician and performer Bruce Springsteen. Contrary to popular belief, Born in the USA was not played at the event. Still, Reagan’s reference to him did prompt Springsteen to publicly state that he was voting for the Democratic candidate that year, Walter Mondale.

As the 1988 Republican presidential candidate, George H. Bush at the Grand Canyon

By the time the 1988 Bush campaign dropped Don’t Worry, Be Happy, it was using a far more appropriate and famous American classic, the patriotic folk song, This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. Often speaking of the the upbeat and politically neutral lyrics certainly spoke to the genuine feelings of George Bush, whose campaign speeches often made reference to the natural beauty of the continental United States, especially the national parks.

While it was far less than the noise provoked by Bush using McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, appropriating the public domain This Land is Your Land carried some political irony.

Written in 1940 by the folk music legend Woody Guthrie, and adapted to the music of an old gospel song, Oh My Loving Brother, it was traditionally associated with liberal Democrats and played as the patriotic theme at pro-union protest rallies and anti-war marches.

A self-taught musician who came out of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Guthrie was rabidly pro-union, sympathetic with some Communist principals early in his career, and composed folk songs as a voice for the exploited of the working-class, be they factory workers or field hands.

Here is a recording of Guthrie singing his famous This Land is Your Land:

A 1988 George Bush for President decal using the American flag.

Making his support of a Constitutional Amendment to ban the desecration of the American flag a part of his 1988 campaign platform, George Bush appropriated use of the flag in his campaign materials to a far greater degree than any previous presidential candidates.

Again using the flag, a Bush campaign button responding to Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richards’ convention refrain, “Where was George?”

Although such an amendment never materialized, the World War II veteran President frequently drew on patriotic themes during his Administration.

It’s not clear to what degree, if any, George Bush again made regular use of This Land is Your Land in his failed 1992 re-election campaign, but there is a suggestion of why enthusiasm for it may have waned during the ensuing four years of his presidency.

Bush in the Oval Office.

After the 1988 campaign, there was wider dissemination of the fact that not only had Woody Guthrie composed music for the 1948 presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace, but that part of his inspiration for writing This Land is Your Land was in response to Irving Berlin’s popular song God Bless America, which he found glib and unrealistic.

Between his 1988 campaign musical theme and its more popular antithesis, Bush soon seemed to indicate a preference. At a Boston luncheon in September of 1989, when he learned that Irving Berlin had just died, the President declared him “a legendary man whose words and music will help define the history of our nation” and broke out singing God Bless America, leading others at the event to join in.
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Categories: History, Politics, Presidential Campaign Music, Presidents, The Bushes

4 replies »

  1. So much irony in the choice of these songs in particular. Really interesting. I especially like the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ business–such a great chuckle to start my day. Makes me wonder why the respective parties and campaigns don’t simply commission new songs before the campaigns ever begin. They’ve certainly got the resources for it and it would solve a whole lot of problems.

    • I entirely agree with you. I think if a piece of music and lyrics is well-wrought and vetted it can really be useful and serve as a unifying aspect of their overall campaign – especially since there’s no lack of talented musical artists who could really work closely with the candidates and their staff on this. I have the last two in this series – the one on George W. Bush and the one on Barack Obama – coming this week. You’ll see that technology has increasingly played a role in this.

      I also want to add how much I enjoy the essays and art featured on your own website and would like to point readers there – especially those interested in quality literature. It is http://www.nordicmountain.wordpress.com

  2. Hi Carl: This is interesting, cuz my memory bank (deep fried in lard), brings up a rather different musical picture of Bush I. Although voting for Clinton in 1992, I still respected Pres. H.W.Bush for having a very patrician/regal presence. I liked his upper class/Ivy League background + his 1st class Resume. He came into the Oval Office very well prepared to be president I didn’t have to worry bout his Red phone going off at 3a.m. What many don’t know about Bush I is that his father, although Republican, was a leading figure in the early civil rights movemet, helping Eisenhauer advocate integrating public schools of the south. Bush the elder grew up in a wealthy family that had very humanistic values. It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Barbara Bush, as First Lady, had a very warm, ingratiating/grandmotherly image.

    As I reflect upon this image I had of Bush as a person, I would associate him w/the music of Peter Duchin, perhaps some nice Andre Previn in background, or Bobby Short (maybe Bobby Short would have been too intense for Bush’s, too EastSide). In contrast, I recall an Interview for one of the news feature shows like Sunday Night Live or 48 hrs in which H.W. proudly showed off his extensive C&W collection!. He was in the Oval Office, and he packed all these desk drawers w/cassette cases In Barbara Bush’s memoirs, she describes the Sunday night camp fires in Maine when the various C& W groups would come to entertain and join the extended family. A very long way from the jazz of St. Louis or the beat of 1930’s 42nd Street. I just don’t associate Yalies (Ely’s?) & Debutantes from Rye NY w/the Ryman Auditorium! But there it was. The blue Blooded Bushes were devout fans of the Opry. The Bobby McFerrin info is new to me, but does not surprise.

    In the 1st paragraph I recall the early image of 1st Lady Barbara as benevolent & grandmotherly. That has certainly changed since she left office and told her own story. In one of Laura Bush’s last interviews as 1st Lady, she discussed her mother-in-law as being “strong as horse-radish”. Laura seemed to like her mother-in-law, and accept her for who she was. I recall a candid tape of Barbara Bush being surrounded by her admirers. One man greeted her, saying he wanted to send her a mother’s day card. She told him to buy his own mother a card, instead. Her tone of voice was quite cantankerous.

    • It’s very interesting isn’t it – what sort of music one ends up being associated with. In the case of President George Bush, I come away from my research with the distinct impression that there was very little personal consultation of him in what seems to be a bit of an arbitrary decision in choosing Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Then again, at the least he surely overheard it – everyone did, that song was everywhere. And yes, he did genuinely enjoy country-western music. I remember he particularly liked the Gatlin Brothers and that they performed for him in the White House. I do think his regional identity was a unique if seemingly contrasting fusion of old-school Yankee and bigtime Houston. I think I titled one of the chapters about Barbara Bush in my book First Ladies, Volume II, The Houston Yankee. And its no secret that Laura Bush had some adjusting to become comfortable with her mother-in-law; she writes quite frankly of the elder’s frostiness in one incident. I always love hearing from you Susanne. I think you should create a website or blog with your observations and rich memories – you have such a humor and honesty in it. I sure would subscribe.

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