A Reagan Country Song & California Classic by ABBA: His 1980 & 1984 Campaign Music

The famous image of Ronald Reagan in a Stetson cowboy hat became iconic for “Reagan Country” voters, a place not bound by region or state border.

The presidential campaign year of 1980 marked the beginning of what might be termed “theme music” being adopted by presidential candidates, rather than the traditional campaign song.

Reagan at the podium congratulating Ford on winning the Republican nomination, 1976. (Ford Library)

1976, the year Ronald Reagan lost his challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination was the end of a different era in presidential election music. It was the last time the candidates of both major parties (Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter) commissioned original campaign songs.

Reagan’s public persona was strongly tied to the Golden State, as evidenced by this campaign pin.

Four years later, when Reagan the former Governor of California, won his party’s nomination it seemed only natural that he would again be widely identified at rallies and the convention by a song he loved and knew well, and which the former actor had been using ever starting his second career of politics. It was the unofficial state song of the Golden State, California Here I Come.

Yet there was something contradictory about a campaign to send him to the White House in Washington being marked by the song’s message suggesting he was happy to be returning to California “right back where I started from,” as the lyrics go. Perhaps it was no accident that the music of California, Here I Come was usually played without the singing of the lyrics.

Reagan riding at his ranch near Santa Barbara, California (Bill Ray/LIFE)

In the case of Reagan, however, by the 1980 presidential election, the nation so closely associated him with his beloved state, that it wasn’t so much a campaign song for the optimistic former Governor as it was a musical theme. It worked in concert with his heartfelt belief in the promising dream still to be found on each morning’s dawn on the Pacific coast, where success could be discovered by anyone who toiled hard for it beneath the beneficent golden sun, in a larger land of freedom stretching eastward.

The I Love Lucy cast sang California, Here I Come. 

It was also a song closely associated with the “golden era of Hollywood,” written in 1924 during the Silent Film Era and famously performed by Al Jolson from the time it first appeared up until the late 1940s.

In some measure, it gained a new currency when it was performed on the popular 1950s television comedy series I Love Lucy, by the core cast (Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance and William Frawley). As the foursome complete a cross-country road trip to California, the top of their convertible down, they each take turns singing portions of the song.

Reagan stumping for Governor, 1966. (Bill Ray/LIFE)

Rather than a conscious choice by the candidate, however, use of the song during Reagan’s 1980 presidential race was more a matter of default by event organizers.

Whenever speakers of either party approached the podium of their national conventions, they were routinely introduced by the musical flourish of songs associated with their states or regions. During Reagan’s appearances at the 1968 and 1972 Republican National Conventions, for example, the recognizable song was played as a prelude for Reagan’s speeches at the podium.

The Reagans campaigning at the California State Fair. (Bill Ray/LIFE)

Reagan so liked the song, however, that even before he was first elected California’s Governor in 1966, California, Here I Come was used at his speeches and rally appearances while he campaigned for that office all over the state.

He used it again during his 1970 re-election campaign, earning him a second term.

At the 1968 convention, Governor Reagan’s political identity was Californian.

Reagan was also often introduced with the song throughout the eight years of his two terms as California’s governor, from 1967 to 1975, even though it wasn’t a matter of “here I come” to California – since the events all took place within the Golden State.

Recorded at the time of Reagan’s second gubernatorial campaign, this 1970 rendition of California, Here I Come, was taped for a television special by the Swedish pop group ABBA.

Performed in the setting of an old California mining town saloon, it also reflected the group’s affinity for American Pop Culture:

It was actually during his preparation for his first political campaign as Governor, in 1966, that the public persona of Ronald Reagan began to transform into the one which would become universally recognizable and play to great effect by the time he ran for President fourteen and then eighteen years later, and ultimately iconize him into the quintessential western cowboy.

In English boots and formal riding crop in hand while performing proper fence jumps, Reagan evoked the British rider. (Bill Ray/LIFE)

It was Lyn Notziger, the press secretary then working to help launch Reagan’s political career, in advance of his formal candidacy for governor, who unwittingly prompted the start of that process.

Nofziger had set up an interview with Reagan at his Santa Ynez Mountain ranch, Rancho del Cielo, with a San Francisco reporter who wanted to ask his questions and get his answers while riding on horseback with the would-be candidate. Reagan was already known for holding conservative political view but he was still an active Hollywood actor. Although his most recent work, the 1965 season of his television show Death Valley Days depicted him in a western persona, he was more often publicly seen in tuxedos at the Oscars and other formal Hollywood events. Contrary to later perceptions, he was not a “cowboy actor” but had played a wide variety of roles in feature films.

Nofziger and the reporter drove up to the ranch and Reagan welcomed them into the modest ranch house he helped to build himself, then excused himself to change into riding clothes. He emerged wearing not denim shirt and blue jeans, but the formal English-style fashion of khaki-colored riding pants known as jodphurs, tucked into tall, unadorned boots, riding crop in hand.

His startled press secretary pulled Reagan aside, telling him, ‘You can’t do that.”

Riding at his ranch was no acting job for Reagan – it was his real life. ‘This is the way I always ride,” he told Nofziger.

With a natural affinity for the West’s culture and professional acting experience in taking on roles, Reagan eased naturally into the persona of cowboy in 1966. (Bill Ray/LIFE)

Nofziger retorted firmly, ‘This is not the purpose of that. It’s to get votes. They’re going to think you look like a sissy!’” Reagan went back to change into a fancy western shirt and work pants and his press secretary nervously assured the reporter, “He’s a great cowboy, looking at him. He played a cowboy in movies.”

During his 1966 gubernatorial campaign, Reagan began to increasingly appear in public dressed in clothes with clearly western touches, but never a costume. He also began to carry and wave a Stetson hat.

In preparation for his 1980 presidential election, Reagan willingly posed for photographers from leading national publications with the ranch as a backdrop. In that setting, Reagan appeared in the casual clothes of a weekend rancher, affirming his identity as a westerner – but hardly the caricature of a gun-slinging cowboy.

The 1980 campaign’s media was overseen by Mike Deaver, a longtime Reagan aide and public relations executive. Considering his attention to detail, it seems unlikely that the lack of any “official” campaign song was an oversight.

From 1932 to 1964 presidential campaign songs had been adapted from familiar numbers in Hollywood and Broadway musicals.

Reagan’s hope to revive patriotism was evident in even his 1980 campaign materials.

By 1980, however, the golden age of the movie musical had passed and theater scores the public knew were from productions like Hair, Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar and Chorus Line, with anti-establishment lyrics or rock music at odds with Reagan’s political base.

Reaching back to adapt music that was popular in the era before the societal strife of the Sixties and Seventies had permanently changed the U.S., however, could suggest a candidate disengaged from the realities of the younger demographic.

And while the campaigns of Nixon, Ford and Carter had returned to the early 20th century custom of commissioning original songs, the music and lyrics failed to reflect the bleak contemporary problems being debated during their campaigns.

So, largely by default, California, Here I Come was used as Reagan’s “theme” during his 1980 campaign.

Four years later, however, having an incumbent President running for re-election use a song with strong regional identity, let alone one specific to a state, was not an ideal way to suggest his interest in the entire United States.

An entirely unexpected and new musical theme for Reagan, however, would emerge from the 1984 Republican National Convention in August and put to good use during the crucial, last two months of the general election campaign after Labor Day, as he faced his Democratic rival, former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Reagan signed the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Cut Act at his ranch, before the White House press corps. (Reagan Library)

In the four years of his first term as President, Reagan’s earlier identity as a sort of gentleman rancher during the 1966 California gubernatorial campaign had begun to evolve into his more recognizable “cowboy” persona.

Reagan speaks to supporters in 1984.

Not without criticism, he’d taken a large number of “working vacation” days at Rancho del Cielo, even signing his landmark economic reform legislation there.

The White House press corps, never far from the side of a President, always descended on the western mountain range with him. More than any political manipulation of his image by the White House, it was the news stories and photographs which the media turned out from the ranch which indelibly impressed a sort of “country-western” image of Reagan in cowboy boots, jeans and rancher hat, saddling up and riding his horse or clearing California cottonwood branches to himself wrought into classic western fencing.

While the imagery was technically from the state of California, his surging popularity among demographics throughout all of nation’s distinct regions was successfully captured by the coined term of  “Reagan Country.”

Reagan accepts cowboy boots in Dallas.

Reagan never missed the opportunity to speak with reverence about the United States and express his confidence in the endless potential of its people.

Beyond legislation he initiated,  his unrelenting optimism led many citizens to name his “making us feel good about America again,” as the reason they personally liked Reagan – even if they didn’t support him politically.

A European caricature depicting Reagan as the missile-happy cowboy from the film Dr. Strangelove.

If his personal qualities engendered patriotism among much of the general American public, his uncompromisingly militaristic rhetoric prompted many European and South American politicians to characterize him as a reckless Yankee cowboy, and editorial cartoons to likewise caricature him. In France, he was even nicknamed Le Cowboy.

A campaign poster posing Reagan as a western sheriff.

Reagan’s more vociferous defenders reacted to this with outraged insult, also making use of the “cowboy” persona, but as an point of nationalist pride.

Delegates to Dallas were given shopping bags showing the Republican elephant symbol – with a cowboy hat. (democraticbuttons.com).

This imagery may have receded had August’s National Republican Convention been held elsewhere. As the first G.O.P. presidential convention to be hosted in the city of Dallas, let alone in Texas, however, the region’s distinct cowboy culture was in celebratory evidence on posters, placards, banners and buttons showing Reagan as a cowboy.

The speech by Reagan’s political mentor and fellow westerner, retiring U.S. Senator fro Arizona, Barry Goldwater not only evoked the mythology of the Great West but its political credo of “rugged individualism.”  U.S. Ambassador the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations delivered a fiery “Blame America First” speech, declaring Democrats to be weak on national defense and apologetic for it to foreign nations.

A screenshot of a famous scene from the 1984 Reagan “Morning in America” film and commercial.

The convention film about President Reagan and “average Americans,” however, proved to be the defining moment.

Written and narrated by advertising executive Hal Riney, filmed by director John Pytka, with art direction by  Bernie Vangrin, it crafted montage images of farmers,fireman, and factory workers to illustrate that, as the narration went, “It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.”

A convention delegate button evoking more of the country-western theme.

Its success, however, also drew from the music which underlined the visual content. While the overall film depicted those conceptual rather than regional places of “Reagan Country,” the predominant song behind the visuals was unmistakably Country-Western Music, reinforcing the western cowboy motif of the President.  Embedded twice in the film was a highly patriotic song titled God Bless the USA, written and recorded by country music artist Lee Greenwood.

Lee Greenwood and his famous country music single.

Although God Bless the USA was also played on its own at the 1984 convention, apart from being heard in the film, Greenwood hadn’t written it for Reagan. It was familiar to many of the delegates in Dallas as well as people watching it on television.

Released that spring on his first album You’ve Got a Good Love Coming, and going on to rise to number 7 on Billboard’s Country Singles, it nevertheless fit perfectly into the overall theme of the 1984  Reagan campaign.

As Greenwood recalled, “I’ve always wanted to write a song about America, and I said we just need to be more united.”

In this first part of the campaign film, God Bless the USA  is heard. at 3:31 and then again, at 17:36:

Following Reagan’s re-election in November, however, God Bless the USA was not used as a musical prelude to speeches and appearances by the President during the four years of his second term. However effective it had been in capturing the mood which campaign managers wished to convey in 1984, it had served its purpose in carrying Reagan back into the White House for what was the sunset of his political career.

Greenwood performing at the Reagan centennial opening ceremony in 2011.

Personally preferring the romantic and sentimental movie and show tunes of his middle years, Reagan was not an especially avid fan of the country music, despite the genre’s popularity among his political base.

Played at subsequent conventions and partisan gatherings, the sound of God Bless the USA had so successfully evoked President Reagan’s dreamy vision of the nation and was so integral a part of the iconic film and commercials of his 1984 campaign that, in the years after his second term ended in 1989 and since his death in 2003, the man and the song became permanently linked in the public imagination.

In fact, at the opening ceremony of the official Reagan Centennial in February of 2011, held at the Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California, Lee Greenwood was invited to perform the song.

Ironically, not one note of California, Here I Come was heard.

Combining English riding jodphurs with a Western handkerchief, Reagan forged his own unique public persona. (Reagan Library)

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