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Political campaigns used to have jingles. Should we bring them back?

This is excerpted from Scott Simon's newsletter, Scott's Thoughts. Sign up here to get early access every week.

When a PAC working to elect Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ran an ad during this year's Super Bowl that superimposed his name on one of his uncle's John F. Kennedy's ads from his 1960 presidential campaign, other family members complained he was exploiting his uncle's memory.

I saw the ad and wondered: what's happened to campaign jingles?

Every major campaign used to have jingles, like a 1952 ad for Dwight D. Eisenhower, produced by Roy Disney.

"You like Ike, I Iike Ike, everybody likes Ike!" singers chanted to a cartoon cavalcade of quintessentially American cowboys, factory workers, farmers, firefighters, Uncle Sam, and a (Republican) elephant playing a drum with its tail.

Whereas a jingle in an ad for his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, was almost solemn.

It featured a lone mezzo-soprano in subdued studio light, singing slowly to the tune of O Tannenbaum:

"Vote Stevenson, vote Stevenson/A man you can believe in, son./From Illinois, whence Lincoln came..."

(You don't find many composers trying to work "whence" into a lyric these days.)

Campaign jingles were part of the growth of radio and television, alongside anthems for cereal, cars, and soap. The idea was to make a name familiar and appealing, whether it was a new brand of detergent or a senatorial candidate.

Some political figures thought television ads with catchy tunes didn't convey proper dignity for the electoral process. "This isn't Ivory soap versus Palmolive," complained Adlai Stevenson.

He may have been right. He also lost twice to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

I remember many of the political jingles I heard growing up, and from my early days covering campaigns in the US, and around the world. Some of them still revolve on a playlist in my head:

"I'm voting for Pucinski, Roman Pucinski! Yes that's Pucinski!" ... "Ability, knowledge, experience he's got / That's our man for senator, William J. Scott!" ... and, in my estimation, the greatest of all-time:

"Hey look him over, hey's my kind of guy /His first name is Birch and his last name is Bayh!"

Political jingles had essentially the same goal as a Roto-Rooter ad ("Call Roto-Rooter, that's the name / And away go troubles down the drain!").

Hit the name, surround it with praise, and repeat.

There is something almost sweetly naïve when you find old campaign songs and jingles on YouTube today."It's Reagan-Bush / in 84! / It's Reagan-Bush for four years more..."

So many political ads now seem to be more about the opposition than the candidate they're trying to elect.

Former political consultant Lynn Pounian told us, "Between the cultural fragmentation of Americans over the last few years and the use of digital and social media platforms for political communication, the simple political jingle has gone the way of the passenger pigeon."

Jingles are not campaign songs, played at rallies. Such songs have an especially auspicious beginning, when Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 campaign for president borrowed the Broadway hit Happy Days Are Here Again.

Over the years, Happy Days has come to symbolize public elation for FDR's election, and hopes that better times were ahead. "Happy days are here again / The skies above are clear again..." But the original song may have just heralded the imminent repeal of Prohibition.

(And by the way, the hands-down-definitive version of the song belongs—and I do mean belongs to—Barbra Streisand. See this performance from a variety show in 1962. Inventive and haunting, all at once.)

Many singers, including Bruce Springsteen, Adele, and Elton John, have objected to their hit songs being appropriated by political campaigns to rev up applause. But Frank Sinatra himself turned his hit, High Hopes, into a 1960 campaign song for JFK.

Were songwriters James van Heusen and Sammy Cahn going to tell The Chairman of the Board he couldn't do that?

Do you recall—with pleasure or exasperation—any political jingles? Write to us! We'd love to try to sing along.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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