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

RICHARD NIXON: Pat and I looked forward to the evenings of entertainment at the White House as much as any of our guests. We felt that performers invited to entertain after state dinners should reflect the whole spectrum of American tastes-and, incidentally, our own eclectic preferences… Beverly Sills, Roberta Peters, Merle Haggard, and the Carpenters covered the range from classical to country and rock.(1)

GEORGE BUSH: I want the song “Last Full Measure of Devotion” sung by a good male soloist(2)

DWIGHT EISENHOWER: I also like a good bass voice.(3)

JIMMY CARTER: I hope you’ll play the prelude to the third act of Tristan and Isolde sometime. I enjoy that very much.(4)

HARRY S TRUMAN: Just don’t play that modern stuff.(5)

RONALD REAGAN: I was filled with pride every time I heard a band play “Over There.”(6)

JOHN TYLER: Can’t you play us a good old Virginia reel?”(7)

DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Do you know anything by Lawrence Welk?(8)

HARRY S TRUMAN: I don’t give a damn about [“The Missouri Waltz“]. But I can’t say that out loud, because it’s the song of Missouri. It’s as bad as “The Star-Spangled Banner” so far as music is concerned…They want to know my favorite songs and when I say “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Parsifal (sic: [ed. Note: actually Tannhäuser]) or “Toreadorfrom Carmen or “Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous” or “Dirty Gerty from Bizerte,” they are not sure whether I’m on the beam or not.(9)

RICHARD NIXON: I don’t like ballet particularly, and I’ve seen Swan Lake a number of times. I’ve seen it, believe it or not, I’ve seen Swan Lake in Moscow, I’ve seen it in Leningrad, I’ve seen it in Sverdlovsk. I have seen it also in Novosibirsk, and all of them with great companies. But if I had to turn on a record, I would like that, some of the Tchaikovsky ballets and so forth. And I like Liszt. I know that somebody was saying to me once when I wanted some number of the Liszt Preludes played at one of our inaugurations, the leader of the orchestra didn’t want to play it because he said Hitler liked it. Well, my goodness, the fact that Hitler may have liked the music doesn’t mean that I liked it because he did. Liszt preludes has a moving quality to it that I like to play. And then I would say, if you want to get to modern music, I think the “Guadacanal Marchin Victory at Sea. That has a lift to it that is really incredible.(10)



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

(2) From George Bush’s Addenda to “My Burial Instructions,” June 10, 1991; reprinted in All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (New York: Scribner’s, 1999), p. 525.

(3) From Howard Mitchell’s April 18, 1982 Interview with Elise K. Kirk published in her book Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 267.

(4) From Col. John Bourgeois’ February 12, 1982 Interview with Elise K. Kirk published in her book Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 338.

(5) From Howard Mitchell’s April 18, 1982 interview with Elise K. Kirk published in her book Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 256.

(6) From Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 25.

(7) From John Tyler’s response to a White House performance by the Bohemian-American composer Anthony Philip Heinrich recounted in Pleasures of Music: A Reader’s Choice of Great Writing about Music and Musicians from Cellini to Bernard Shaw by Jacques Barzun (New York: Viking Press) and 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. 59.

(8) 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. 267. A complete list of Eisenhower’s favorite music can be found on a Web page maintained by the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

(9) Combined from comments by Harry S Truman cited in Off The Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 23; 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.255-56.

(10) From the second part of Richard Nixon’s conversation with Brian Lamb at the time of the release of Nixon’s book, Seize the Moment: America’s Challenge in a One-Superpower World, originally broadcast on the C SPAN-2 program, Booknotes on March 1, 1992, transcribed on the Booknotes Web site.