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The Broadway song that nominated a president

The astounding success of Hamilton, its capacity to engage audiences from third graders to the president and first lady, reminds us that Broadway musicals have a healthy tradition of mining political history. From 1776 to Evita, songwriters have been fascinated by political power. What drives people to become leaders? How do they rally supporters around them? What reservations do they have about their failures and successes? From costumes to choreography to the musical score, Broadway storytellers have amazing tools at their disposal, but as Lin-Manuel Miranda might agree, nothing attracts an audience like a tale of scrappy ambition carved out of the past.

Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam stands the traditional partnership between politics and musical theater on its head. Although based on real life events, the musical played a special role in the making of American history. Long before Dwight Eisenhower had joined a political party, let alone agreed to run for office, Call Me Madam was advocating for an Eisenhower presidency, and evidence suggests that Berlin’s musical significantly contributed to his election.

Call Me Madam opened at New York’s Imperial Theater in October 1950, with Ethel Merman starring as a Washington socialite who becomes the American ambassador to the fictional country of Lichtenburg. Although the focus remains with Merman’s character, Sally Adams, the show featured a catchy tune midway through the second act in which two senators and a congressman speculate about the upcoming presidential race. As the Democrats boast that the combative Harry Truman would hold the White House for another term, the Republican asserts that his party has set their sights on running a more affable candidate: “They like Ike / And Ike is good on a mike. / They like Ike.”

When the Democrats interrupt, “—But Ike says he don’t wanna,” the congressman wittily replies: “That makes Ike / The kind of fella they like! / And what’s more / They seem to think he’s gonna.” In each verse, the Democrats list various reasons why Truman will win, but the chorus always comes back to the simple Republican theme: “They like Ike.”

Irving Berlin 1906: Publicity photo of Irving Berlin taken by his early music publishing company for promotion. By Life magazine images - Book: Life: Our Century in Pictures (2000). Via Wikipedia Commons.
Irving Berlin 1906: Publicity photo of Irving Berlin taken by his early music publishing company for promotion. By Life magazine images – Book: Life: Our Century in Pictures (2000). Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons.

The phrase “They like Ike” had occurred to Berlin when he met Eisenhower in London in 1944, and Call Me Madam provided just the opportunity to develop it into a song. The Tony Award-winning musical was a hit, and although it had nothing to do with the storyline, the power of “They Like Ike” was immediately evident. After seeing an early performance, the syndicated columnist Inez Robb described the song as “one of the greatest political windfalls ever to fall like manna upon a presidential possibility.” “They Like Ike,” she predicted, would “sweep the general into the White House.”

The problem for Eisenhower supporters, however, was that the general had no intention of running for president and barely tolerated the Draft Eisenhower movement that was spreading across the country. Berlin’s lyrics took on new significance when, in January 1952, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge entered Eisenhower’s name in the New Hampshire Republican primary. Stationed in Paris as Supreme Commander of NATO, Ike took to his journal and cursed. Back in New York, Berlin quickly revised his lyrics to fit the voice of Eisenhower’s many fans: “I like Ike / And Ike is easy to like / Stands alone / The choice of We the People.”

Over the course of the campaign and, indeed, over the next sixteen years, Berlin used the song to reflect changing circumstances. When Joseph McCarthy endorsed Eisenhower’s chief Republican opponent, Ohio Senator Robert Taft, the Call Me Madam cast sang: “McCarthy’s backing Taft? / That’s the kiss of death!” After Ike’s victory in November, the show’s disillusioned Democrats bemoaned “how many changed their minds down at the polls.” As late as 1968, Berlin was changing the lyrics to address the Vietnam War and the wide-open presidential contest. The chorus, however, stubbornly clung to a candidate from the 1950s: “We still like Ike.”

Berlin and the cast of Call Me Madam played a prominent role in a February 1952 rally for Eisenhower held in Madison Square Garden. In order to accommodate a previously scheduled boxing match, the organizers began the rally at 11:30 pm after the boxing fans had departed the building and over 15,000 Eisenhower supporters had flooded in. After the curtain fell at the Imperial Theater, cast members joined such stars as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall in offering their support. (Bogart and Bacall would eventually switch their endorsement and campaign for Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson.) Ethel Merman belted out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and danced with the chorus master Fred Waring. Berlin debuted his new version of “I Like Ike,” while the actor who played Harry Truman appeared in costume, comically wagging a disapproving finger. As if politics were a combination of pugilism and show business, all of the proceedings took place within the Garden’s boxing ring.

Critics hated the rally, denouncing it as cheap, vulgar, and “an expression of really outrageous cynicism,” but Berlin’s song swept across the country. Herbert Brownell, who served as Eisenhower’s Attorney General, concluded that the song’s popularity helped convince the general that the time was right for a presidential bid. Seeing a recording of the rally a few days later in Paris, Eisenhower wept. By June, he had returned to the United States to take his shot at the presidency.

We do not know what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s influence on our politics will be, but if he proves to be as determined and astute as Berlin, it could be substantial. And as we read about Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and REM trying to reclaim their music from the Donald Trump campaign, we might remember the power of song not only to represent America, but also to shape it.

Featured image: Broadway Street Sign. Image by Damzow via Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 3.0.

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