White House Music: Truman And Nixon Tickling The Ivories
After the musical moment from President Obama this past week—and that was one very smooth moment that anyone of us who ever sings in the shower well understands–we need to be reminded what other presidents had in the way of musical qualities.
Richard Nixon was no Billy Joel. And yet twice in 1974, in the last months of his doomed administration, the President Who Was Not a Crook became the President Who Was the Piano Man. He played “God Bless America” at the Grand Ole Opry, and the same tune when he accompanied singer Pearl Bailey in the East Room of the White House. The two also conspired on “Home on the Range” and “Wild Irish Rose.” ”You don’t play as well as I sing,” Bailey joked, “but I don’t sing as well as you govern.” She was half right.
Nixon also appeared on TV with Jack Paar in 1963, and played a little concerto of his own devising. Nixon said this would put the kibosh on his political career: “The Republicans don’t want to another piano player in the White House,” he said.
Nixon was referring to “Give ’em Hell Harry,” a Democrat who could never pass a piano without sitting down to play a few bars. In 1952, Truman conducted a nationally televised tour of the newly renovated White House and played a bit on the 1938 Steinway. The building had been condemned when a leg of piano played by his daughter Margaret, a singer whose talent was of some dispute, crashed through the floor of the decrepit mansion.
Truman also played for Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, neither shortening nor lengthening World War II appreciably. The man did love the piano: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician,” he once said. “And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”