The Best and Worst Political Campaign Songs (But Mostly the Worst)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With presidential campaigns already gearing up for 2020, candidates are beginning to rally their bases, retool their talking points, and select their campaign songs—those upbeat little ditties that play at rallies, speeches and pretty much whenever a candidate walks on stage.

The art of choosing the right campaign song is not as straightforward as it may seem. For hundreds of years now, U.S. presidential candidates, world leaders, and even a few dictators have found themselves flummoxed, mocked, and, more often than you’d think, sued for selecting the wrong tune.

Here’s a list of a few of the most notable, scandalous, ridiculous, or downright brilliant campaign songs ever used.

1. Saddam Hussein: "I Will Always Love You"

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s selection of Whitney Houston’s "I Will Always Love You" for his sham campaign in 2002 is perhaps the most wonderful, if nonsensical, choice of a campaign song in political history. Syrian pop star Mayyada Bselees’ Arabic cover of the soaring love ballad (written and originally performed by Dolly Parton) was broadcast on dawn-to-dusk radio spots from Baghdad to Basra endorsing the mustachioed autocrat—just before the U.S.-led bombing campaign began in 2003.

2. Ronald Reagan: "Born in the U.S.A."

When Ronald Reagan chose Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as his campaign song in 1984, a collective gasp echoed across the nation. Anyone who has actually listened to the lyrics knows it’s a seething anti-war anthem, delineating, among other things, U.S. military failures in Vietnam: “I had a buddy at Khe Sahn/Fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there, he’s all gone.”

3. Hillary Clinton: "Captain Jack"

Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t had much better luck choosing her campaign ditties. In 2000, she used Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” at a rally—a song her opponent, Rudy Giuliani, gleefully pointed out is about things like getting high and masturbating.

Eight years later, during the Democratic presidential primary, Clinton let her fans go online and vote on her campaign song—a nice, democratic idea that turned into a bit of a debacle when conservative pundits began offering their own suggestions. David Brooks of The New York Times offered Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” Jon Sanders of Townhall.com suggested R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” and Rush Limbaugh struck below the belt with Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-lovin’ “Baby Got Back.”

Clinton ended up going with Celine Dion’s travel-themed love song, “You and I."

4. Silvio Berlusconi: "Thank Goodness for Silvio"

For nearly a decade, Italy’s playboy-president, Silvio Berlusconi, had been campaigning to an original tune, the title of which loosely translates to “Thank Goodness for Silvio.” Anyone familiar with Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga debacle won’t be surprised to find out that “Thank Goodness for Silvio” comes with a series of campaign music videos, which have played regularly over the years on Italian television, and feature beautiful women hanging out in beauty salons, walking on treadmills, and performing water aerobics, while singing longingly into the camera about how great Il Cavalere really is.

5. John Quincy Adams: "Little Know Ye Who's Coming"

George Washington also went with an original tune, “God Save Great Washington,“ a rather thinly veiled knock-off of “God Save the Queen”—an interesting choice for the Redcoat-vanquishing general. But Washington’s vaguely pro-royalist jam is nothing compared to John Quincy Adams’ campaign song a few decades later, which unlike most campaign songs that try for a more positive approach, actively threatened voters if they didn’t vote for him: "Fire's a-comin', swords a-comin'/pistols, guns and knives are comin'/...if John Quincy not be comin'," the singer crooned. Despite the threats, Adams lost the 1828 race to Andrew Jackson.

6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "Happy Days Are Here Again"

It wasn’t until 1932, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, that a pre-existing campaign song was used—and it happened rather by accident. At a campaign rally one day, the man charged with introducing Roosevelt did such a terrible job, the soon-to-be president’s advisors wanted to play something—anything—to get the bad taste out of the audience’s mouth before FDR took the stage. The chirpy ditty, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” from the 1930 musical Chasing Rainbows, just happened to be lying around. The jangly tune was such a hit, Democratic candidates used it for the next few decades, forever associating it with the party.

7. George W. Bush and Others: "Right Now"

For a few years, beginning in 2006, Van Halen’s rousing jam “Right Now” became the unofficial theme song of the Republican party, with George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and John McCain all rocking out to the hit that was MTV's 1992 Video of the Year. That is, until someone pointed out that the song comes from an album entitled For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, which refers to criminal sodomy, and features a not-so-family-values acronym. The video laments, "Right now oil companies and old men are in control."

The Van Halen kerfuffle was just one of many problems Republican candidates in the U.S. have faced in recent years. In 2008, for instance, John Mellencamp, Boston, Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, Heart, and a composer named Christopher Lennertz all asked the McCain/Palin campaign to stop grooving to their tunes. In 2012, Tom Petty asked GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann to quit blasting “American Girl.” (He also balked when George W. Bush co-opted his defiant anthem, “I Won’t Back Down,” in 2004.)

8. Angela Merkel: "Angie"

German chancellor Angela Merkel ran into similar trouble in her reelection campaign in 2005, when she chose the Rolling Stones’ break-up song, “Angie,” as her theme song—without the band’s permission, and apparently without actually listening to the lyrics, which aren’t ideal for an incumbent: “With no loving in our souls, and no money in our coats/You can’t say we’re satisfied … /All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke/…Ain’t it time we said goodbye?”

9. Bob Dole: "I'm a Dole Man"

In 1996, Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole also went with the name-related theme, changing the lyrics to the 1960s classic “I’m a Soul Man” to “I’m a Dole Man.” A representative for the original song, which was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, performed by Sam & Dave, and at the top of the charts in 1967, demanded that the Dole campaign pay $100,000 in damages for every time the song was played on the campaign trail. A settlement was later reached—and Dole never played that song again.

10: Barack Obama: "Hold On, I'm Comin'"

When Barack Obama's campaign used Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" in 2008, the Sam half of the R&B duo (Sam Moore) told them to stop because he had not endorsed the candidate. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Moore had other problems with the use of the tune: "When the song was first recorded by Dave and myself, it was pulled off the market because it had such sexual orientations. I don't want to get graphic with this, but how do you take a song about getting girls and turn it into a political thing? Somebody's really desperate!"

11: Hugo Chavez: Impromptu Hillary Clinton ditty

The melodramatic former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, didn’t have a campaign song, exactly, but he did interrupt one of his own speeches to sing a little ditty to Hillary Clinton. “I’m not much loved by Hillary Clinton,” he crooned. “And I don’t love her either, lada da da!” The song was short, but it was a crowd-pleaser—the assembled students cheered him on for several minutes afterward.

That Time Hawaii Tried to Join the Japanese Empire

ShaneMyersPhoto/iStock via Getty Images
ShaneMyersPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Wandering around Hawaii, you might sometimes feel as if you’ve teleported, unaware, to a different archipelago across the Pacific. Cat figurines beckon from shop windows. Sashimi and bento boxes abound. Signs feature subtitles inscrutable to an English speaker. Hawaii’s ties with Japan are strong.

But they could have been much stronger, if 19th-century Hawaiian monarch King Kalākaua had gotten his way. In 1881, the island’s penultimate monarch hatched a secret plan to form a political alliance with Japan. Had his gambit succeeded, Hawaii would have fallen under the protection of Emperor Meiji's East Asian empire—keeping it out of the clutches of American imperialists bent on turning Hawaii into a U.S. state.

Though you might not know it today, Hawaii's relationship with Japan didn't begin on the best note. The first Japanese emigrants to relocate to Hawaii—other than a handful of hapless sailors—were about 150 sugar laborers in 1868. However, deceptive contracts and poor working conditions drove almost a third of those laborers to return home, and as a result, Japan ended up banning further emigration to Hawaii. The rocky start to formal labor relations between the two countries didn’t bode well for Hawaii, where a century of exposure to European diseases had already left the population a fraction of what it once was. If the island kingdom was to survive, culturally and economically, it would need an influx of new workers.

About a decade later, Hawaiian king David Kalākaua, who had been nurturing a serious case of wanderlust, decided that the labor shortage was important enough for him to leave his kingdom for the better part of a year. His council agreed, and on January 20, 1881, he set off on an around-the-world trip—a first for any world leader. He invited two friends from his school days to join him: Hawaii Attorney General William Nevins Armstrong, who would serve as commissioner of immigration, and Charles Hastings Judd, Kalākaua's private secretary, to manage logistics. A chef rounded out their party of four.

King Kalākaua seated with his aides standing next to him
Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After 10 days in California, the band steamed toward Japan. As a small group from a modest country, they had planned to keep a low profile, but the Japanese government insisted on giving them a royal welcome. Kalākaua and his crew enjoyed two weeks of sightseeing, fine dining, and diplomatic discussions related to trade and immigration.

While most negotiating took place as an ensemble, at some point, Kalākaua slipped away from his companions for a private audience with Emperor Meiji. Taking the emperor by surprise, he proposed an alliance that could have changed the course of Hawaiian, Japanese, and American history.

A marriage between his 5-year-old niece, Princess Victoria Ka'iulani, and the 15-year-old Japanese Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito, Kalākaua argued, would bring the two nations closer together. Kalākaua also suggested that the two leaders form a political union as well as a matrimonial one. Since Japan was the larger and more powerful country, Kalākaua suggested that Meiji lead his proposed Union and Federation of the Asiatic Nations and Sovereigns as its “promoter and chief.”

Kalākaua didn’t leave a written record of the trip, so exactly what kind of relationship he imagined Hawaii might have with Japan in his proposed federation remains unclear. But even if the details of the king’s plan are fuzzy, the potential implications weren't lost on his retinue. “Had the scheme been accepted by the emperor,” Armstrong later wrote in his account of the trip, “it would have tended to make Hawaii a Japanese colony."

Kalākaua kept his motivations for proposing this joining of the two nations from his entourage, but Armstrong later speculated the king had a “vague fear that the United States might in the near future absorb his kingdom.” The U.S. hadn’t taken any overt steps toward annexation yet, but American traders living in Hawaii yearned to stop paying taxes on international imports and exports—nearly all of which came from or went to the States—and so they favored becoming part of the U.S. Kalākaua, undoubtedly aware of their agitations, may very well have desired protection under Japan’s sphere of influence.

The Japanese emperor and prince took Kalākaua’s suggestions into consideration, but politely rejected both in later letters. Higashifushimi wrote that he was “very reluctantly compelled to decline” because of a previous engagement. And while Meiji expressed admiration for the federation idea, he wrote that he faced too many domestic challenges to take on an international leadership role. Armstrong, for his part, speculated that the emperor was also afraid of stepping on America’s toes by cozying up to such a close trading partner.

If Meiji had chosen differently, the next few decades, and the following century, could have played out very differently for Japan, Hawaii, and the United States. Armstrong, for one, immediately recognized how much the “unexpected and romantic incident” could have bent the arc of the kingdom’s history—and the world's. And Europe's reigning superpowers would not have been pleased. Japanese control of Hawaii would have been "a movement distasteful to all of the Great Powers,” Armstrong wrote.

An official portrait of King Kalākaua and his aides with Japanese officials.
King Kalākaua and his aides in Japan in 1881. Front row, left to right: Prince Higashifushimi, King Kalākaua, and Japanese finance minister Sano Tsunetami. Back row, left to right: Charles Hastings Judd, Japanese Finance Ministry official Tokunō Ryōsuke, and William Nevins Armstrong.
Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Kalākaua continued his circumnavigation, going on to visit China, Thailand, England, and a dozen other countries (including a stop in New York for a demonstration of electricity by Thomas Edison) before returning to Hawaii after 10 months abroad. While his bolder moves to poke the West in the eye with a Japanese alliance had fallen short, the main drive for his trip—alleviating the kingdom's labor shortage—ultimately proved a success. Thousands of Portuguese and Chinese emigrants moved to Hawaii the following year.

As for the Japanese, after years of negotiation, Japan lifted its ban on emigration to Hawaii in the mid 1880s. A guarantee of a higher minimum wage—$9 a month for men and $6 for women, up from $4 (about $240 and $160 a month today, respectively, up from $105)—and other benefits led to almost 1000 Japanese men, women, and children coming to Hawaii in February 1885. Almost 1000 more arrived later that year.

By 1900, booming immigration made the Japanese the largest ethnic group on the island chain, with more than 60,000 people representing almost 40 percent of the population. Hawaii had roughly doubled in size since Kalākaua's world tour.

Sadly for Kalākaua, by then his “vague fears” of U.S. imperialism had already come to pass. A group of wealthy, mostly white businessmen and landowners weakened, and eventually overthrew, Hawaii’s constitutional government, leading to annexation by the U.S. in 1898.

But that doesn't mean Kalākaua's trip didn't change the course of Hawaiian history. The king’s political maneuvering may have failed to build a protective alliance with Japan, but it bolstered his islands’ population and laid the groundwork for a cultural diversity that continues today.

5 Facts About Larry the Cat, the UK’s Chief Mouser

Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images
Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images

In February 2011, then-Prime Minster David Cameron adopted a tabby cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to help control 10 Downing Street’s rodent population. The shelter recommended Larry based on his "sociable, bold, and confident nature," and now, besides rat catching, Larry “spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defenses, and testing antique furniture for napping quality,” according to the 10 Downing Street website.

Since receiving the esteemed title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the first Downing Street cat to carry the title—he has outlasted Cameron and PM Theresa May, has had scuffles with his nemesis Palmerston (more on that later), and may have caused a security issue for Donald Trump.

It’s unclear if new PM Boris Johnson will keep Larry around or possibly replace him with a dog, which will probably not go over well with Palmerston and Gladstone, Chief Mouser of HM Treasury. Here are some things you might not know about the photogenic feline.

1. On his first day on the job, Larry scratched a journalist.

ITV News reporter Lucy Manning paid a visit to 10 Downing Street on Larry’s first day. Media attention was a new thing for Larry at the time, and he didn't immediately take to it. Instead, he lashed out and scratched Manning on the arm four times, then hid under a table and refused to come out.

2. Larry wasn't a natural mouser.

Larry the Cat wearing a collar with a bow on it and sitting on a green table.
James Glossop, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Though Larry supposedly had a "very strong predatory drive and high chase-drive and hunting instinct," according to a spokesperson, it wasn't until two months into his tenure that he started showing Downing Street's mice he meant business. As The Guardian reported in April 2011, Larry "preferred hanging out in the corridors of power to stalking in the grass" and the building's staff was forced to train the cat "by giving him a toy mouse to play with when he failed to catch any prey for two months." Finally, on Good Friday, “Larry appeared through a window from the Downing Street garden with a mouse in his mouth. He is believed to have dropped his swag at the feet of the prime minister's secretaries.” Larry continued his duties between daily cat naps.

3. Larry may or may not have caused problems for Donald Trump.

During Donald Trump’s June 2019 visit to 10 Downing Street, Larry—who is allowed outside—decided to hang out under Trump's limo (nicknamed "the Beast") to take shelter from the rain ... and reportedly wouldn't move. According to The Washington Post, "It wasn’t immediately clear whether Larry’s presence halted Trump’s movement ... Earlier, the cat appeared in a photo of Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May in front of 10 Downing Street." He did eventually mosey off (hopefully in search of mice).

4. Larry has a nemesis.

Palmerston, a black and white cat, sits outside a black and gold gate.
Leon Neal, Getty Images

In 2016, Palmerston—a black-and-white tuxedo cat named after 19th-century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston—was hired as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Chief Mouser. Like Larry, Palmerston was a rescue who came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Soon after Palmerston moved in, the cats had a couple of rows, including a major one in August 2016, during which they "were at each other hammer and tongs," according to a photographer. Larry lost his collar in the fight and messed up Palmerton’s ear as they “literally [ripped] fur off each other.” The turf war was so bad that police had to step in, and Larry needed medical treatment. Thankfully, the two seem to have ceased the cat fighting.

5. Larry has a parody twitter account.

"Larry" has an active Twitter parody account, where he comically posts political articles and photos (and has even begun poking fun at his new Downing Street flatmate, Boris Johnson). Sometimes he provides educational information: “England is part of Great Britain (along with Wales and Scotland), which in turn is part of the United Kingdom (along with Northern Ireland).” Other times he just makes cat jokes (see above).

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