The Twinges and Twang of George W. Bush’s 2000 & 2004 Campaign Music

A rectangular George W. Bush button from his first presidential campaign.

All through the twelve years of his father’s four campaigns for the highest national offices, George W. Bush was at his father’s side: 1980, when he lost the presidential nomination but won as the vice-presidential candidate with Reagan, their 1984 re-election, the 1988 he won to become President and the failed 1984 re-election bid.

George W. Bush at his father’s 1988 campaign headquarters. (Steinkamp/CORBIS)

As his father’s primary aide, “W.” had a unique perspective on what had worked during the four national campaigns and what had not. Whether or not his father’s lack of defining campaign theme music was important enough to appear on his radar, George W. would do it differently in his own 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.

Unlike his father’s 1988 campaign use of the flag, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign brand carried the single, unmistakable Lone Star of Texas.

Besides being more attuned to Pop Culture and contemporary music, the son had a regional identity which was not only central to his public persona but defined his preference for country-western music, from the traditional to all its rock derivations. “I’m a Texan and I’m an American,” said George W. Bush, “what else could anyone ask for?”

Mellencamp was one of several recording artists who asked the Bush campaign to stop using their music.

Despite his decisiveness about his music, George W. Bush was tweaked more than any previous presidential candidate for appropriating contemporary music for his first campaign to win the Republican nomination and then general election which culminated in the disputed election of 2000. The Bush campaign used I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty, R.O.C.K. in the USA by John Cougar Mellencamp, and Brand New Day by Sting. One by one, each of the musicians registered their public objection to this because they didn’t politically support him. In each case, the W. Bush campaign ceased using the music.

Billy Ray Cyrus, as famous for popularizing the mullet hairstyle as his music.

In danger of becoming the first major party presidential candidate without any campaign theme music, it was George W. Bush media advisers who readily accepted the offer of the Sony music label’s Monument Records to use an original song by Southern Rock artist Billy Ray Cyrus. Best known for popularizing the questionable “mullet” hairstyle in the 199os and his hit song Achy Breaky Heart, the song had an appealingly democratic title, We The People, the first three words of the U.S. Constitution.

George W. Bush campaiging in 2000. (Buck:AFP:Getty)

As it turns out, We The People was offered not only to the Bush campaign but that of his opponent Democrat Al Gore as well. Monument Records was, in fact, seeking to promote the song which was part of the album Southern Rain, released at the time of the two conventions in the summer of 2000. It featured not just Cyrus but a number of other guest country-western music stars, including Waylon Jennings.

With lyrics heralding Americans of the working-class (“We pay the taxes, we pay the bills, so they better pay attention on Capitol Hill…”), We the People was a grittier take on the theme evoked in Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” theme with a harder country music twang than Reagan’s God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood.

Democratic candidate Al Gore.

Billy Ray Cyrus, however, pointed out that while he would decide who to vote for after watching the debates, he was a “lifelong Democrat.”

He wrote We The People to simply inspire “the American people to use their freedom to vote,” and thought it would be ideal if that year’s Democratic president candidate, Vice President Al Gore and Bush both used it, simultaneously. In an interview at the time, he explained, “It’s struck me as different because it’s a working people’s song, y’know, and I’ve never really thought of the Republicans as the party of the working people. Am I wrong?”  Here’s the song’s music video:

Hoping to appeal to Latino voters, the Bush campaign had used several songs by Latino performer Ricky Martin, who then performed at W’s 2001 Inaugural opening ceremonies (and danced with him) though withdrew his support five years later in protest of the Iraqi War.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the Internet had not only made all recorded music instantly accessible but allowed for more rapid downloads onto portable CD disks. The proliferation of choice forever altered the uses of music in presidential campaigns to shift perceptions and tailor it to the purpose of different rallies and events. Bush staffers burned CDS with a multitude of music tracks, using whatever music pumped up various demographics of crowds wherever the candidate was speaking.

For events hosted for Latino voters which the Bush campaign sought to cultivate into the Republican column, for example, a number of recorded tracks by Latino pop singer Ricky Martin were often used. Before the convention, some of his advisers had given consideration to making the song Closer To Free by the rock band BoDeans because its lead singer was Latino and they were natives of Wisconsin, a key state in the general election. They decided not to go with it.

Bush on the Rangers ball-field.

One more frequently used because its lyrics could more directly be applied to George W. Bush’s biography and the perception of his political philosophy which the campaign hoped to emphasize once he had won the nomination.

Centerfield, by John Fogerty, especially applied to Bush, according to Tucker Eskew, one of his campaign spokesman explained, because the candidate was “not too far to the right, and it’s about baseball, and Governor Bush has the background with [once having been the part-owner and managing general partner  of] the [Texas] Rangers.”

Here’s Centerfield by John Fogerty:

President Bush on the 2004 re-election campaign trail.

Four years later, as President George W. Bush kicked off his re-election campaign, he again ran afoul for appropriating a contemporary work, Still the One, because its co-writer and singer John Hall of Hall & Oates was a rabid Democrat. As was already the established tradition by 2004, a number of current and popular songs were used at campaign events by both Bush and his Democratic rival John Kerry. Two other songs frequently used by the President in 2004 were  Right Now by Van Halen and Wave on Wave by Pat Green.

The World Trade Center.

The Afghani War and the Iraqi War which President Bush led the United States into during his first term had been incited, according to the Administration, by the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon Building in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign emphasized the September 11 World Trade Center attack and his subsequent Afghani War and Iraqi War.

The wars and the attacks would come to define Bush’s entire eight-year presidency, the themes of his 2004 re-election campaign and most aspects of Pop Culture in the Uh-Ohs Decade, including popular music.

The cover art for Only in America.

Although the song Only in America, by the country-rock music team of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn had been released on their album Steers & Stripes in the summer of 2001, several months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it hit the number one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts after the trauma.

The Texas branding of Brooks and Dunn was a perfect fit for “W.”

Among the numerous patriotic country songs written in reaction to September 11, however, the quality of Only in America made it a stand-out.

Called a “flag-waving opener” by Country Weekly, it was not merely Only in America’s patriotic message but also its distinctly country-rock sound which made the song highly appealing to George W. Bush and the one he most frequently used throughout his 2004 re-election campaign. Here it is:

Brooks and Dunn

The music and lyrics of Only in America proved so popular that it was also used at the Democratic National Convention which nominated Kerry and, again, at the 2008 one which nominated Barack Obama, played after the candidate’s acceptance speech.

It has even been heard this year at rallies for both of the 2012 candidates, President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Bush uses the Texas longhorn signal at his 2005 Inauguration.

Despite the song being used by numerous candidates of both parties, George W. Bush might claim a slight edge of propriety about the twang of Only in America. For once, the artists who created one of the songs W used in his campaigns not only didn’t mind his use of their song but they were avid supporters of his candidacy.

And, in an appreciative turn, he invited them to perform it at his 2005 Inaugural concert.

George W. Bush, 43rd President and his father George H. Bush, 41st President. (George Bush Library)


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Campaign Music, George W. Bush, History, Presidents, The Bushes

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