Ten Politicians With the Best Taste in Music

The story goes like this: During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s team decided that the former California governor needed to court the youth vote. The song “Born in the USA” was popular at the time, so naturally they figured that the connection with Bruce Springsteen and a song that they perceived as a patriotic rallying cry would make an ideal theme song to accompany Reagan’s rousing rhetoric.

Accordingly, Reagan and his wife Nancy went backstage after one particular Springsteen performance and waited patiently outside the star’s dressing room to ask permission.

Always there to prompt him, Nancy leaned over and whispered to Ronnie. “Now dear, do you know who 'The Boss' is?” she asked, referring to Springsteen’s well-known nickname.

"Why, of course,” he replied. “You’re The Boss, Mommy!”

OK, so there might have been some creative embellishment inserted into that story. Regardless, many presidents and politicians have dabbled in the musical arts, for better or worse. Here, we count down ten of politics' most musical members.

10. Ronald Reagan
Aside from his failed attempt to secure the aforementioned “Born in the USA” as his campaign song, Ronnie and Nancy were big fans of the Beach Boys. After all, the band proudly represented the Reagans' home state of California to the rest of the world with their audio images of surf, sand, and sunshine. So when James Watt, Reagan’s secretary of the interior, announced in April 1983 that he was vetoing the choice of the Beach Boys as headliners for the Capitol’s annual Fourth of July celebration, he aroused the ire of the entire nation, and Nancy Reagan in particular.

She declared that the Beach Boys were one of her favorite bands and publicly called him out for his insistence that they lacked a wholesome image and encouraged drug use and alcoholism. Yet, while they had played the event many times before, by the time Watt reversed himself, it was too late. The resulting publicity brought the band an offer to play Atlantic City instead. For their efforts, the Reagans got a cozy group photo as consolation.

9. Bill Clinton
The future president’s appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 presidential campaign featured him performing “Heartbreak Hotel” on saxophone, which was not surprising, considering the fact that he briefly considered a music career before going into politics. He later donated the instrument to the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. Nevertheless, that single scenario immediately established his hip image and the fact that he couldn’t resist a good blow whenever the occasion was offered.

8. Richard Nixon
Nixon’s love of piano playing was well known, and while he never realized his ambition of becoming an accomplished musician, he did have ample opportunity to show off his skills both on television and at the Grand Ole Opry. He even composed several concertos. Still, Nixon’s best-known musical connection came with a White House visit from The King himself, Elvis Presley, who had written the president a long letter explaining why he should be made a “Federal Agent at Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. After all, Elvis had extensive knowledge on that subject. The famous photos that were taken during that fateful meeting have become the most requested viewing in the National Archives, surpassing even the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

7. Mike Huckabee
The former governor of Arkansas, presidential candidate, and Fox News host is an avid guitar enthusiast and even plays bass in a band called Capitol Offense. He also calls himself a huge fan of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and even tried to get Keef as a guest on his show Huckabee. Hoping to tempt him, he used his gubernatorial powers to pardon the renegade rocker for his reckless driving conviction in 1975, when Richards and co-conspirator Ron Wood were arrested in Fordyce, Arkansas, driving in a car that contained a huge cache of drugs. Although the two were briefly detained, their lawyer got them off on a mere misdemeanor charge, leading Richards to claim that Huckabee’s so-called pardon was nothing more than a political ploy.

6. Lamar Alexander
The former Tennessee governor and one-time presidential wannabe is widely recognized as an accomplished pianist adept at both classical and country music. In 2007, he contributed to a re-recording of Patti Page’s beloved “Tennessee Waltz,” and later performed with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, his playing skills never gained him wider recognition, but an East Tennessee highway named in his honor reflects his love for his roots... and his routes.

5. Robert Byrd
As one of the longest-serving members of Congress, the late West Virginia senator made a remarkable transition over the course of his political career, going from avid supporter of the KKK to fervent advocate for civil rights. He was also an acclaimed fiddle player, taking the name “Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd” early in his career. In 1978, he recorded a bluegrass album called U.S. Senator Robert Byrd: Mountain Fiddler. His fiddling skills gained fame in Washington, and later he went on to perform at the Kennedy Center and the Grand Ole Opry. Clearly, he wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.”

4. Jerry Brown
The California governor has never demonstrated any musical ability, but did show he had excellent taste when he dated singer Linda Ronstadt during his early term in the state capital. According to Ronstadt's autobiography, the two “had a lot of fun for a number of years. He was smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs, and lived his life carefully, with a great deal of discipline.

“Neither of us ever suffered under the delusion that we would like to share each other’s lives,” she goes on. “I would have found his life too restrictive, and he would have found mine entirely chaotic. Eventually we went our separate ways and embraced things that resonated with us as different individuals.” Or, as the title of one of her early hots suggested, each traveled to the beat of a “different drum.”

3. Jon Huntsman
Huntsman was clearly destined for success early on. His father was a prominent businessman and philanthropist, and the younger Huntsman went on to become governor of Utah, ambassador to China, and a member of five presidential administrations. When he ran for president during the Republican primaries of 2012, his moderate, uncompromising stance found him doomed to failure due to the party’s overly conservative sentiments. Nevertheless, Huntsman has admitted that his original dream was to be a rock star, and when he dropped out of his senior year of high school just before graduation, he started a stint as a keyboard player in a band called Wizard. Apparently, the real wizardry involved was his talent for public service.

2. John Hall
Hall gained fame early on as a member of the band Orleans, whose hits “Still the One” and “Dance With Me” established him as a legitimate hit maker and a rocker of national repute. However, it was his desire to crusade for a cause that led him to rally against nuclear proliferation and later to enter politics — first as a member of his local Legislature in upstate New York and then as a member of the New York Board of Education. He was later elected to the House of Representatives from New York’s 19th Congressional District, serving in the House from 2007 to 2011.

Ironically, the campaigns of both George W. Bush and John McCain used the song “Still the One” in their campaigns without permission and were forced to drop it after Hall protested that he had not authorized its use. (The same scenario has arisen when songs by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Tom Petty have been adopted by candidates whom the artists were reticent to support.) As for Hall himself, had he not lost his reelection campaign in 2010, he would be “still the one” holding office himself.

1. Barack Obama
President Obama may be the most musically inclined president of all time, at least in terms of his enthusiasm. While his attempt to imitate Al Green during a public appearance fell flat — literally as well as figuratively — his close ties to a number of musicians provide him a kind of musical mantra. He awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan, attended the Kennedy Center Honors when Led Zeppelin members were inducted, and has had numerous artists, including Paul McCartney, perform at the White House. Who said there were no presidential perks? Rock on Barack!
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Lee Zimmerman