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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Although such an amendment never materialized, the World War II veteran President frequently drew on patriotic themes during his Administration.
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.
- George P. Bush Making His Political Mark (dfw.cbslocal.com)
- George H.W. Bush Press Secretary in 1984: Lying During Debates Is a Republican Strategy (delong.typepad.com)
- The Ghost of George W. Bush (thedailybeast.com)