Music and the American Presidency: A Virtual Fireside Chat with U.S. Presidents

RICHARD NIXON: Among the hundreds of memorable evenings, I particularly remember Golda Meir rushing impulsively to embrace Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein when they performed after a state dinner in her honor.(1)

ANDREW JOHNSON: After Supper, we all went up to Front Street Theater, and witnessed the Danseuses Viennoises. This splendid performance you have doubtlessly often heard of, but never will you be able to appreciate it until you see it for yourself. It consists of 48 little girls, all dressed in the richest and most gawdy manner, performing every imaginable evolution and arranging themselves in every circle and figure, to be found in the tactics of the fashionable world, and singing with a voice so sweet, and dancing with a foot so light, that Job in the midst of his afflictions would have rejoiced at the scene before him.(2)

RONALD REAGAN: …we went to see Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, two old friends from Hollywood, in Sugar Babies. At the final curtain, Mickey asked the audience to stay in place until we exited, and as we went up the aisle, the audience began singing “America The Beautiful” — more lump-in-the-throat time.(3)

HARRY S TRUMAN: Paderewski was in Kansas City when I was about twelve or thirteen… And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski… [My piano teacher] Mrs. White took me with her [to hear him], and it almost scared me to death. She told me I didn’t know how to take the turn in his minuet, and he said, “Sit down,” and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Potsdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.(4)

JIMMY CARTER: I still remember the impact a visiting symphony orchestra made in the county I come from in south Georgia. It was the first time a symphony orchestra had ever played in that area. Everybody, from country merchants to farmers, went, listened and enjoyed. The orchestra’s visit was the main topic of conversation for week’s afterwards. People felt something beautiful and full of meaning had touched their lives.(5)

GEORGE BUSH: The Oak Ridge Boys came into my little office on the plane and sang some gospel songs and just a handful of us were there. I sat on the chair opposite my desk and Mary Matalin sat on the window sill and the Oaks were on the couch. Almost all of us had tears in our eyes when they sang “Amazing Grace” — so moving, so close, so warm, so strong — and I thought of Dad and told George, “Boy, would my father ever have loved to have been hearing these guys sing.”(6)

HARRY S TRUMAN: Went to Bar-le-Duc and went to Mass… we were curious to see inside one of the old churches and also expected to hear some good music. Our curiosity was satisfied and we were not disappointed in the music. There was a grand organ and a master at the keyboard. He played a most beautiful offertory from Bach and some woman with a grand soprano voice sang a part of the Mass.(7)

JAMES K. POLK: …I was sent for by Mrs. Polk to go to the parlour to meet company who were there… I found fifty or more persons, ladies and gentlemen in the parlor; Mr. [William] Dempster, a celebrated musician, entertained the company by singing and playing on the Piano.(8)

RICHARD NIXON: I think that the most memorable of all our White House social occasions was Duke Ellington‘s seventieth birthday on April 29, 1969, when I presented him with the country’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. We invited more than 200 guests, including Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Mahalia Jackson, Harold Arlen, and Richard Rodgers… I braved the piano accompaniment to “Happy Birthday” and when the formal program was over, and some of the some of the greatest jazz musicians had performed some of his greatest songs, I said “I think we all ought to hear from one more pianist.” I went over to Duke’s chair and led him to the piano. The room was hushed as he sat quietly for a moment. Then he said he would improvise a melody. “I shall pick a name – gentle, graceful – something like Patricia,” he said. And when he started to play it was lyrical, delicate, and beautiful – like Pat.(9)



(1) From The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 539.

(2) From Andrew Johnson’s November 4, 1848 Letter to Blackston McDannel, of Greenville TN; collected in The Papers of Andrew Johnson, edited by Leroy P. Graf and Ralph W. Haskins (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1967), I (1822-1851): 465.

(3) From Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 253.

(4) From a comment by Harry S Truman in Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman by Merle Miller (New York: Berkley Publishing Co. distributed by Putnam, 1972), p. 86.

(5) From Jimmy Carter’s Message to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Carter on the Arts (New York: ACA Publications, 1977), p. 44; cited in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 337.

(6) From a November 2, 1992 entry in George Bush’s diary; reprinted in All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (New York: Scribner’s, 1999), p. 571.

(7) From Harry S Truman’s February 23, 1919 letter to Bess Truman; archived in Truman’s World War I Letters as part of Project WhistleStop, the Truman Digital Archive Project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

(8) From James K. Polk’s March 7, 1846 Diary entry; reprinted in Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit by Elise K. Kirk (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 62.

(9) From The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 540.

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