Tom Harkin finished his speech announcing he was...

WHEN SEN.

September 21, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WHEN SEN. Tom Harkin finished his speech announcing he was running for president, an aide asked the band to play "Happy Days Are Here Again."

"Can you hum a few bars?" the puzzled band leader asked.

That tells you something about today's Democratic Party. That song is as much a part of party lore and literature as, say, "Anchors Aweigh" is part of the Navy's.

The song is thought of as a "recovery" song, but, in fact, it was intended to be a "peace" song, debuted as sarcasm, then entered politics as an "anticipation" song.

The song was Franklin D. Roosevelt's theme in his 1932 presidential campaign. But it was written in 1929 for a movie, "Chasing Rainbows," about World War I. Jack Yellen, who wrote the words, said it was meant to convey the feeling of soldiers in France when they received news of the armistice.

The movie was so bad that the studio couldn't decide whether to release it. (It eventually did in 1930.) So in 1929 the song writers started peddling the song to bands. On Black Thursday, Oct. 24, the day the crash launched the Depression in earnest, the song got its first performance by a dance band in New York's Pennsylvania Hotel. Looking at the gloomy crowd, bandleader George Olsen told his vocalist, "Sing it for the corpses." Yellen later recalled, "After a couple of choruses, the corpses joined in sardonically, hysterically. Before the night was over, the hotel lobby resounded with what had become the theme song of ruined stock speculators."

FDR was a devoted Navy man. He sailed and collected Navy memorabilia and naval histories. He was assistant secretary of the Navy in World War I. He wanted his 1932 theme song to be "Anchors Aweigh." That made sense, personally and symbolically. His campaign was a promise to get the ship of state steaming back to prosperity from its becalmed state.

And, of course, happy days were not back again yet in 1932. That was the whole point of nominating Roosevelt, who pledged to do something new to end the Depression and get happy days here again.

But when the band at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago began to play "Anchors Aweigh" in a slow tempo as FDR's nomination became assured, Tammany Hall's Ed Flynn, chairman of the Democratic Party in the Bronx and a big FDR man, thought it sounded too downbeat. He got the band to switch to "Happy Days Are Here Again."

The song's optimism caught on. FDR won and used the song as a theme in three more campaigns. Later Democratic Party presidential nominees embraced the song.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe the band at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988 played it the night Michael Dukakis was nominated. And now a Harkin band doesn't even know it.

Maybe if we have another Depression, the Democrats will re-embrace it, having, after a glum decade, something to be happy about again.

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