Washington Wednesday: Presidential music

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 2nd of October,  2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. 

I can remember back in the 1980s and the 1990s sharing with my friends something we called “mix tapes.” Probably was illegal but we did it anyway. The growth of music streaming services though in recent years has led to something new, and that is the sharing of playlists. 

Stories about celebrity playlists are common on popular news services. So it’s no surprise that political coverage of the presidential candidates this time around includes a close examination of their musical selections featured during their rallies and campaign events.

Music and political campaigns is nothing new. Music has been a part of political campaigning from the earliest days of our country. Paul Butler joins us now to talk a bit about the past, as well as what we can learn about our 2020 candidates from their music tastes.

Paul, good morning.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER. Good morning. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation now for a couple weeks. 

EICHER: I have too, I think this is going to be a fun one to do. And I remember early in the campaign, one of the earliest candidates to toss his hat into the ring was Cory Booker. The democrat senator from New Jersey. 

BUTLER: A lot of candidates are very intentional about what they choose to “walk up” to. The campaign finds a piece of music that they feel captures the essence of the candidate’s message and so often they’ll play that cut of music as that candidate walks out to the podium. And on April 13th, Cory Booker walked out to this song:

SONG: LOVELY DAY BY BILL WITHERS – [LYRIC] A lovely day. Lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day. Lovely day. 

EICHER: You know I think that’s fitting. Cory Booker is 50 years old—close to my age and Bill Withers was an artist that those of us of this particular age, appreciated. I found something interesting though, another one of the early entrants into the democratic race was a congresswoman who’s a good deal younger. She’s 38 years old: congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and yet she’s choosing an old tune.

BUTLER: Yes. She’s choosing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — capturing this idea of “I will be there for you. Nothing will get in my way to accomplish what it is that we’re set out to do.”

SONG: AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN BY MARVIN GAYE AND TAMMI TERRELL – [LYRIC] Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough…

EICHER: You know Paul, typically when you and I are talking, we’re talking about the History Book, because that’s your thing. And I know that you’ve gone back and looked much further back than 2018.

BUTLER: Well, let’s just start in the year 1840. That presidential race included William Henry Harrison. And perhaps you’ll recognize this popular tune…

SONG: TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO BY THE OSCAR BAND – [LYRIC] We’ll now please ourselves and our lasses, and we’ll vote for ‘ol Tippecanoe… 

EICHER: Ok, I have a confession to make, I don’t recognize the tune…

BUTLER: That’s Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. Campaign music shifted gears a bit in the 20th century. Many candidates start using catchy jingles—a lot like an advertising slogans—here’s just a few to wet your appetite. 

MONTAGE OF POLITICAL JINGLES – [LYRIC] Ike for President, Ike for President. You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes…Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy for me…so vote Goldwater, and go-go Goldwater all the way…Nixon now, Nixon now…

EICHER: Nixon now for you and me. Wow, that’s very soothing but the presidency of Richard Nixon didn’t exactly end that way, and Jimmy Carter came along and turned the page in more ways than one. 

BUTLER: He did. And his campaign music was very different. He actually had an original folk ballad written for his campaign theme song.

SONG: WHY NOT THE BEST -[LYRIC] Said his name was Jimmy Carter, and he was running for President…

EICHER: Well Paul, I would have to say that’s about the quietest little presidential ditty I’ve ever heard. Actually, I don’t know if you remember back then, one of the famous lines that was associated with Jimmy Carter, and he didn’t like it, and it didn’t help him—was when he uttered the phrase: “malayze.” And that’s kinda what the song sounds like to me.

BUTLER: The eighties do turn the page once again on campaign music. And there’s this return to using popular music selections and themes for their campaigns.


During the 1984 presidential campaign, Democrat challenger and underdog Walter Mondale chose that theme as he faced off against Ronald Reagan. Reagan chooses a handful of patriotic numbers, including Lee Greenwood’s: “God Bless the USA.”

SONG: GOD BLESS THE USA BY LEE GREENWOOD – [LYRIC] And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget those who died…

EICHER: You know that really is interesting because even today I would associate country music more with republicans and rock music more with the democratic party. 

BUTLER: Yeah. It plays itself out and what’s interesting, the New York Times recently did a very detailed analysis of all of the candidates playlists. There are some candidates that don’t play any country music, and there’s some that don’t play any rock and roll music and it’s really become an interesting investigation into politics of identity and the music that we play. 

EICHER: Paul that is an excellent historic background, but let’s shift ahead to today and talk about the sort of “walk up” music for the top-five of the democratic challengers.

BUTLER: Joe Biden’s frequent walk up song is “We Take Care of Our Own.”

SONG: WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN BY BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – [LYRIC] We take care of our own, we take care of our own…

Biden’s short play list of about 20 songs is a pretty even split between oldies and more current artists. Some country, some soul, a little bit of rock and roll. The New York Times says: “Biden is making a broad bid for voters, and his playlist is almost perfectly divided between black and white artists.” 

EICHER: Ok, number two is Elizabeth Warren.

BUTLER: Now Elizabeth Warren’s message—you won’t be surprised—that she chooses Dolly Parton’s song: “Nine to Five” for her introduction music.

SONG: 9 TO 5 BY DOLLY PARTON – [LYRIC] Working nine to five, what a way to make a livin’, barely getting by…

EICHER: Now that’s messing up my theory Paul about Democrats going with rock songs and republicans going with country songs.

BUTLER: Well she’s obviously trying to appeal to working class democrat voters, and particularly women voters. And the Times point out, talking about her playlist, that she’s one of the oldest candidates in the race and most of her songs reflect that. They’re dated from the 1990’s or earlier. She has hardly any current songs on her playlist. 

EICHER: Ok, I can’t wait for you to tell me about what’s on Bernie Sanders playlist.

BUTLER: I think it’s no great surprise that his very short, 14-song playlist, deals with revolution. He really likes John Lennon’s song: “Power to the People.” 

SONG: POWER TO THE PEOPLE BY JOHN LENNON – [LYRIC] Power to the people, power to the people…

BUTLER: The other thing the Times noticed about Bernie Sanders’s playlist is how few female artists show up. He only has one. And this is a carry over, actually from his last campaign. That in 2016 there was a complaint about how few women were part of his organization and they see this as a continuation of that same theme. 

EICHER: Ok, that makes perfectly good sense to me, Bernie Sanders kind of in the 60’s, I bet that Kamala Harris is a bit more up to date.

BUTLER: She certainly is. She has hip-hop, funk, a lot of pop-music. She’s actually got no rockers on her list. And she has one of the longest playlists in the field with 41. And she frequently walks out to the women-empowerment anthem: “Work That” by Mary J. Blige. 

SONG: WORK THAT BY MARY J. BLIGE – [LYRIC] Whoa, work what you got…

EICHER: You know Paul, going through all of this music…[DEEP VOICE] I feel a little bit like Casey Casum with American Top-40. How was that? Was that ok? 

BUTLER: That is.

EICHER: And so, now at number five, Pete Buttigieg.

BUTLER: His favorite walk up song is “High Hopes” by Panic! At The Disco.


It’s a really catchy tune, and he obviously sees himself as the one person in a million, like the lyrics say, who’ll do something big. But his playlist is also distinctive because of how many LGBT artists and advocates he includes, and actually the Times makes a pretty big deal about that. 

EICHER: Before we go, Paul, what about the playlist of Donald Trump?

BUTLER: He often comes out to “God Bless the USA.” We’ve already heard about that song and its decades of history in the Republican party, but his playlist also features a lot of classic fight songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” 

SONG: WE WILL ROCK YOU BY QUEEN – [LYRIC] Singing we will, we will rock you…

Trump’s playlist is very eclectic. It includes Elton John, Kidd Rock, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, but the Times criticized Tump’s playlist as being: “overwhelmingly performed by white artists or majority-white bands.” 

EICHER: Yeah, I guess that’s a fair point, but that kind of ignores the ideological diversity of his playlist. 

BUTLER: You’re right, there’s a huge range from Frank Sinatra on one side, to one of his go to songs since 2016, from the Rolling Stones.

SONG: YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT BY THE ROLLING STONES – [LYRIC] You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. 

EICHER: Hey Paul, excellent work in pulling all of that together, that was a lot of fun, and I think informative for Washington Wednesday—a very different approach. Paul Butler is the Features Editor for World Radio. Paul, thanks so much.

BUTLER: You bet. Thank you.

SONG: YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT BY THE ROLLING STONES – [LYRIC] You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime…

(AP Photo/Eric Gay) From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Washington Wednesday: Presidential music

  1. Aaron says:

    This segment was a treat to listen to. Very creative reporting. You could tell Paul and Nick had alot of fun with it. Keep up the great work guys!

  2. Russell Board says:

    Elizabeth Warren is far from the “oldest candidate in the race.” Biden and Sanders are significanly older.

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