Kennedy wins by a landslide when you start tallying the most annoying features of “Rockin’ the White House: Four Decades of Presidents and Popular Music,” the current exhibit of photos, artifacts and performance clips at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace.
Not President Kennedy, who is barely a footnote in this small collection, but Kennedy the MTV personality, who qualifies as one of our most obnoxious fellow Americans and who is all too prominent as hostess of the program’s two video reels.
If your timing is perfectly wrong when you visit the exhibit, you can hear Kennedy in duplicate, cross-talking against herself on “RNTV” as she rattles on from both screens in that wheedling, vacant way of hers.
The other truly annoying thing about “Rockin’ the White House” is the exhibit’s cramped compression into a short hallway. The video screens, mounted in recessed niches, are too small and much too close to each other, so that audio from one screen is constantly interfering with the other. Trying to concentrate on Merle Haggard or Dave Brubeck, you might get a brassy blast of the Captain and Tenille.
“Rockin’ the White House” is flawed in other ways, but not as badly as a skeptic might suspect. The curators could have gone for a complete cover-up, turning the uneasy encounter between rock music and political power into a fluffy, smiley-faced historical Disneyland in which famous figures from the music world placidly cross paths with First Families dating back to the Eisenhower years.
There is, to be sure, a good deal of pure glitz, but the brief wall texts that introduce the exhibit’s four sections (one each for country, jazz, pop and rock) also allude to controversies that have attended some musicians’ White House visits, and they duly note the wide gulf that exists between the rock ‘n’ roll world view and the view from the Oval Office.
Among the tidbits one picks up is that the Turtles, the snappy Los Angeles pop-rock harmony band, was vilified in some rock circles when it became the first rock band to play the White House, sharing a bill with the Temptations at a 1969 party thrown by Tricia Nixon.
Also noted is Johnny Cash’s polite refusal of a Nixon White House request for renditions of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and Cash’s own “Welfare Cadillac.” Cash replied that “Okie,” Haggard’s across-the-bow shot at the anti-war counterculture, and “Welfare Cadillac,” a joke song that plays to demeaning stereotypes about poor people, “would be too provocative given the climate of the times.”
Nixon, not surprisingly, and not without justification, is the exhibit’s dominant figure. He is seen on the video screens giving a lengthy introduction to one of his biggest show-biz supporters, Sammy Davis Jr., and banging out piano chords during a celebratory sing-along on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
Not mentioned anywhere is a certain John Lennon, who became a target of Nixon Administration pressure during the early 1970s. In ’71, Lennon sang the song “Gimme Some Truth,” injecting venom into the lines, “No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dicky is gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap me / With just a pocketful of hope.”
The following year, the Administration tried to have Lennon, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, deported as an undesirable alien because of a 1968 marijuana possession bust in England. Lennon fought the order and finally won his case in 1976, two years after Nixon’s Watergate-expedited departure from office.
Evidently, the fact that Lennon never had personal contact with a President makes all this irrelevant as far as “Rockin’ the White House” is concerned (however, there is a large photo mural of George Harrison hobnobbing with Gerald Ford; nearby is a blowup of the famous picture of a zonked-looking Elvis Presley shaking hands with Nixon; the exhibit also includes a pistol that Presley gave the President on the occasion).
Anti-Nixon sentiment isn’t completely whitewashed: the introductory text to the exhibit’s rock section notes that R.E.M. refused curators’ request for video footage of a performance at the Bill Clinton inaugural celebration: the text notes that “The band’s manager, Jefferson Holt, said, ‘It is pretty much everything that President Nixon stood for that we disagree with. All of his policies were the opposite of what we believe.’ ”
Not that R.E.M. should have cooperated if it dislikes Nixon, but the quotation is a good example of the tendency toward hyperbole, over-generalization and emotion-over-reason that takes over too often when rock sticks its nose into politics: Many of Nixon’s social programs would be considered quite liberal today. Affirmative action and aid initiatives for the poor were Nixon policies that presumably were not the “opposite” of R.E.M.'s own beliefs.
Perhaps the most poignant item in the collection attests to American art’s typical impotency in the face of American politics. It’s the lyric sheet to “Cuba Al Fin,” a song in Spanish that Stephen Stills wrote and sent to Jimmy Carter in hopes that relations between the U.S. and Cuba might thaw: “Listen, Cuban people. . . . I hope that we can join together like neighbors. . . . It is friendship, it is only right.”
So much for influence.
The exhibit’s most obvious omission is any sort of listing, with illustrative lyrics or audio bites, of songs specifically about the various Presidents.
Rockers being inherently suspicious of authority, they haven’t had much good to say about our chief executives--at least not the ones who managed to live out their terms. The JFK martyrdom sparked or helped motivate such moving laments as the Byrds’ “He Was a Friend of Mine” and Dion’s hit, “Abraham, Martin and John.”
The Kennedy assassination also has persisted in rock iconography as an image for a shattered golden age--for example, in the memorable Andy Prieboy/Concrete Blonde song of bitter disillusionment, “Tomorrow, Wendy.”
Nixon would come under frequent and ferocious attack in any catalogue of presidential songs; Lennon’s above-quoted salvo was one of numerous folk and rock broadsides leveled at Nixon throughout his career.
The list includes brickbats from Phil Ochs (“Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of / Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of”) and Country Joe McDonald (“He walks, he talks, he smiles, he frowns / Just like a human can / He’s Tricky Dicky from Yorba Linda, a genuine plastic man”).
The National Guard’s 1970 killing of anti-war protesters at Kent State University prompted a searing indictment from Neil Young, rendered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in their Top 20 hit “Ohio”: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio.”
Even on his deathbed last year, Nixon was still liable to be kicked around by unforgiving rockers: in “Rhythm King,” an upbeat song by alternative-rock band Luna, the former President’s imminent demise is mentioned in passing as a cause for raised spirits: “Heading to Tacoma, driving too fast / Nixon’s in a coma, and I hope it’s gonna last.”
All of this may appear degrading to Nixon’s memory (the songwriters surely intended it that way), but it is actually an impressive testament that fully belongs in the exhibit.
Regardless what one may think of him, Nixon was an imposing figure in American life, too significant for politically attuned rockers to ignore. Only Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rival Nixon, among recent politicians, as favorite subjects of spleen-venting rock songwriters.
They, too, are memorable personalities and imposing historical figures who had an undeniable impact. I can’t think of any rock songs that specifically target Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush or Bill Clinton, none of whom brings to mind the words “imposing” and “undeniable impact.”
As RNTV’s own Kennedy might say: “I mean, like [with a squawk, a shriek and a goofy grimace], why bother?”
* “Rockin’ the White House: Four Decades of Presidents and Popular Music,” is on display through June 2 at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon-Fri; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. $5.95, with discounts for seniors, children and military personnel. (714) 993-5075.