The Presidential Suite

A suggested soundtrack for the George Bush Presidential Library.

By Sarah Vowell
November 15, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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-->Dear Former President Bush:Every girl always remembers her first. Vote, that is. And you, Mr. Former President, you have a special place in my heart because you were the first (and, come to think of it, the second)
presidential candidate I ever had the pleasure of voting against. Not that
I think about you very often. But when I saw your picture in the paper the
other day at the opening of the George Bush Presidential Library and
Museum, I started reminiscing.

Memory lane was a dimmer path than you'd think. You may be recent
history, but thinking about you made me realize how much of your presidency
I spent trying not to notice unnoticeable you. Even though a bunch of
catch phrases gurgled up -- "wimp factor" and "smart bombs" and "thousand
points of light" and "kinder-gentler" and "Millie's Book" -- I was
having trouble remembering who said what -- you, or Dana Carvey playing you on
Saturday Night Live. (Carvey's Bush still appears every week in syndication,
which means his presidency has outlasted yours by nearly five years.)


I haven't had the pleasure yet of attending your shrine, but as an audiophile, I can't help but wonder what your curators have chosen as the soundtrack to your career. Frankly, I never thought of you as a musical man, though I seem to remember your publicly liking country music but privately preferring classical (it was that whole Texas/New England dichotomy most of us never really figured out). Yet, your presidency was a very musical time for me. I was in college. I was going to rock shows where bands like the Feelies and the Young Fresh Fellows and PJ Harvey played. I hung out with Replacements fans who had one refrigerator for food and another one for beer. I bought my last new vinyl record (Laurie Anderson's "Strange Angels") in 1989 and, along with the rest of the country, switched to CDs. I did things like pile into a car with my friends and drive 13 hours to Seattle just to see the Buzzcocks. I was a college radio DJ
(where I not only played records, but had to announce your victory the
morning after your election). Despite what you were up to, for me and my friends it was a nearly utopian musical universe.

It's only appropriate, then, that your library should have some songs.
I could be wrong, but if it has a musical exhibit at all, it's a
giant photograph of your maker Lee Atwater playing "the blues" on his
electric guitar. As we all know, Atwater may have been the B.B. King of political consultants, but he was still the Dan Quayle of the guitar. Even you are better than that, Mr. Former President.

See, there's this thing that a lot of us still liked during your time in office. It was called rock 'n' roll, and it meant different things to different people. Now, you could ignore that. You could plan your musical program the museum way -- assigning
hits o' the week to concurrent political events. The LBJ Library, for
instance, sticks with the great pop chestnuts, and who can blame them? I
recall a particularly disturbing moment there when I was reading the
letters from parents whose Vietnam-soldier children had died in combat
while "Louie Louie" bounced around the room. Fun 'n' death: so U.S.A.
But the '60s musical landscape is more easily agreed upon. The '80s and '90s are more fragmented. Your era includes Michael Bolton and Tad, Public Enemy and Janet Jackson, Bikini Kill and the Lemonheads, and, as always, Neil Young, whose "Rockin' in the Free World" perhaps not coincidentally condemns your rhetoric and happens to be my favorite song.


My suggestion is this: You invite your former
constituents, any ordinary citizen who lived through your presidency, to
plan exhibits of songs which meant something to them at that
time. I, for instance, might tell you about the hard work I did for
$3.35 per hour at a swamped sandwich shop to put myself through college. I
might tell you about that perfect day when I was hunched over cheesesteaks
for six hours straight with the bosses looking in on your trickle-down
world and They Might Be Giants' satirical slave-driver cry that went
"Minimum Wage! Hyah!" came on the radio, and all the workers burst out
laughing with the thrill of vindication as our bosses stared at the
floor. I wouldn't mind knowing what a citizen of Los Angeles was listening
to when she set her own city on fire. Or what tapes a Gulf War soldier carried in his knapsack (the Cure's "Killing an Arab"?). Or even what your son Neil had on
the stereo that helped him sleep through the Savings and Loan fiasco. And
maybe after that, music critic Gina Arnold could do an installation
about how when Nirvana's "Nevermind" hit number one, she knew
instantly you would not be reelected. Well? She was right, wasn't she?

So, Mr. Former President, let's forget about a thousand points of light. How about a thousand points of view? That way, your library could be innovative in a way your presidency never was.

Sarah Vowell


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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