Kheel Center, Cornell University/flickr
The pep was palpable. As scenes from the 1960 presidential campaign flashed by during a screening of JFK hosted in partnership with The Atlantic, the addictive, saccharine soundtrack was mesmerizing. Political jingles cheerfully urged listeners to vote for Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon—men, each song manically assured, who could lead America. It felt like a rogue a cappella group had taken the auditorium hostage.
For some reason, today's campaign songs don't quite capture this quality—Springsteen and Kid Rock lack that special perkiness. To revive a little of our republic's former campaigning joy, The Atlantic has dutifully assembled a sample of the political earworms unleashed on the unwitting American public in 1960.
That year's master of the campaign song was, of course, John F. Kennedy. His famous friendship with Frank Sinatra helped him secure "High Hopes," a 1959 hit that was tweaked a little to fit Kennedy's campaign.
Kennedy's less-remembered campaign song, "Kennedy, Kennedy," made a cameo during the first season of Mad Men. Marketers at the show's ad agency, Sterling Cooper, watched a clip of the song during a debate about reviving the Nixon campaign, which was fictionally their client. "It's catchy, like it gets in your head and makes you want to blow your brains out," one of the characters observes.
And indeed, it seems Nixon's campaign struggled to find just the right jingle to fit his presidential hopes. The remarkably titled "Click With Dick" features lyrical gems like: "Come on and / Click with Dick / The one that none can lick. / He's a man of peace and reason / On the job in every season."
Seatbelt metaphors were apparently popular with the Nixon campaign. Another of its theme songs was called "Buckle Down With Nixon" (recreated in an enthusiastic accordion performance below):
Kennedy's main opponent in the Democratic primary, Hubert Humphrey, also commissioned campaign jingles, including "Hubie Humphrey, We Love You!" As a wry archivist at the Library of Congress observed, "The sole serious thought in the lyrics of 'Hubie Humphrey—We Love You!' suggested that the candidate would 'get our boys out of Viet Nam.'"
But significantly, Humphrey chose a more classic spiritual, "Old Time Religion," as his main campaign song, which was a subtle way of drawing attention to Kennedy's Catholicism among suspicious Protestant voters. Some recordings of the song are quite somber, but this 1940s version by the Johnson Family Singers proves that even gospel music can sound like an upbeat campaign song (and vice versa).