Theme Party

Oct. 16 1996 3:30 AM

Theme Party

Politics really is a song and dance.

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For most of this century, it's been a routine British sneer that Americans have no sense of irony. Bob Dole's poll numbers may finally be proving the Brits right. Dole has run the most ironic, postmodern presidential campaign ever seen--starting with his campaign theme song, the only conceivable purpose of which is to serve as an ironic negation of everything campaign themes are meant to do. "I'm a Dole Man" is a takeoff on the '60s hit "I'm a Soul Man," and its most immediate quality is that it's so un-Dole. It's a parodic campaign song: Dole obviously has never heard of it, any more than he's heard of Tupac Shakur or those other gangsta rappers his advisers periodically call on him to denounce. Then again, considering that 98 percent of all pop songs are gender-neutral (though Pat Buchanan toyed with "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun"), the number seems to have been especially picked for the blithe insouciance it shows toward the Dole campaign's "gender gap." What do they do for a second chorus? "I'm a Dole Chick"? More ironic is that the song is an exquisite musicalization of the candidate's most frequently cited defect: his campaign's lack of any central theme. "Dole Man" isn't about anything at all. You can't blame Dole for having trouble staying "on message" when the only message of his song is that you should stand around twitching:

I'm a Dole Man,
Na-na-na-na, na-na.
I'm a Dole Man,
Na-na, na-na
.
(Repeat until fade)

Sam & Dave sang the song back in the '60s, and Sam gave the campaign permission to use it. I forget how Dole voted on the 1976 revisions to Title 17 of the U.S. Code, but it clearly never registered with him that, in pop songs, copyright belongs to the copyright holder--in this case the recording company--not to the recording artists. One of the song's writers objected to "Dole Man," the recording company backed him up, and Sam's permission proved to be irrelevant. So much for Dole's line that though he may not have a lot of fancy words, he's a legislator and knows how things work.

C ompare all that with Clinton in '92, who went on the stump to a Fleetwood Mac song that suited him perfectly. Yes, that's a cruel thing to say about anybody, but the point is that it was a plausible soundtrack to his campaign:

Don't stop
Thinking about tomorrow,
Don't stop
It'll soon be here.

This quatrain distills brilliantly both the vapidity and ruthless single-mindedness of the Clinton administration. We can't say we weren't warned.

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F or a campaign song that's pithy you have to go back to 1931 and the satirical musical Of Thee I Sing, in which John P. Wintergreen campaigns for the White House with a powerful slogan ("A Vote for Wintergreen Is a Vote for Wintergreen") and a winning campaign song (by the Gershwins) of just four lines:

Wintergreen for president!
Wintergreen for president!
He's the man the people choose,
Loves the Irish and the Jews.

Unfortunately, the strategy wasn't so successful the second time around. In the sequel, Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933), John P. Wintergreen runs for re-election and is defeated by John P. Tweedledee, with his winning campaign song:

He's the man the country seeks!
Loves the Turks and the Greeks!

Ira Gershwin was much better at spoof campaign songs than the real thing. In the '50s, he reworked "It Ain't Necessarily So" for Adlai Stevenson (and included the first sung reference to a vice-presidential candidate: "L'il Nixon was small, but oh, my/His office expenses were high") as well as "Love Is Sweeping the Country" (also from Of Thee I Sing):

Adlai's sweeping the country!
He will be the next prez,
We'll be leaning
On words with meaning,
For he means every word he says.

It's funny how hard it is to find anything to sing about. Most presidential elections in the republic's history have had specially commissioned themes: "Teddy, Come Back," "Wilson--That's All," "Franklin D. Roosevelt's Back Again," "Nixon's the One." But it wouldn't have made any difference if they'd been "Wilson's the One," Theodore Roosevelt's Back Again," "Franklin--That's All," and "Nixon, Come Back."

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A s if to concede the John P. Wintergreen/John P. Tweedledee interchangeability, most campaigns eventually settled for an "INSERT NAME OF CANDIDATE HERE" approach, shoehorning their man into the handiest existing song. In 1988, I asked Sammy Cahn if he'd been pressed into service. "Funny you should mention that," he said, "but I got a call from some friends in Boston who are backing a fellow called Dukakis. So I wrote 'My Kind of Guy (Dukakis Is).' "

"A bit tricky to rhyme, 'Dukakis is'?"

"Sure," said Sammy, "but there's always a way around. When Kennedy asked me if he could use 'High Hopes,' I realized his name didn't fit any part of the tune. Where can you put it?

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"Just what makes the little old ant
Think he'll move a rubber-tree plant?
Ev'ryone knows an ant
Can't
Move a rubber-tree plant,
But he's got high hopes.

"So, instead of that, I spelled it out:

"K-E-double N-E-D-Y
Jack's the nation's favorite guy,
Ev'ryone wants to backJack.
Jack
Jack is on the right track,
And he's got high hopes."

When I subsequently encountered Dukakis, it seemed highly unlikely that he could be Cahn's (or many other folks') kind of guy--and, of course, he wasn't particularly. Cahn was simply plying his trade. "I'm a songwriter and I play straight down the middle. Sinatra asked me to do a lyric for Spiro Agnew, so I did." Amazingly, the guy who wrote "Call Me Irresponsible" and "All the Way" insisted that the song he wrote to mark Ed Meese's first year as Attorney General was one of his best lyrics ever.

Perhaps one day the Dick Morrises and Ed Rollinses will find it easier to pick candidates who already have the names of popular songs. Watching the shamelessly bogus populist Lamar (Lamar!) Alexander "walking across New Hampshire," accompanied by campaign workers in immaculately pressed plaid shirts they'd clearly changed into in the men's room at Manchester airport, you began to wonder if the candidate himself wasn't just Lamar Schmoe who'd changed his name just so he could use "Alexander's Ragtime Band" as his theme song.

Should all else fail, the candidate can always resort to the theme from Rocky, which, on the basis of no scientific evidence, is credited with mystical powers to transform any flagging campaign. Bob Dole has been using it in his post-"Dole Man" phase. In 1980, facing similar difficulties, Ted Kennedy switched from Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" (too high-toned) to "Gonna Fly Now," the theme from Rocky (Ted as the plucky little underdog). As we all know, he swept to a fantastic victory that November.

Mark Steyn writes about popular music for Slate, and about film for the London Spectator.