White House reporter Arlo Guthrie? Or is it concerned citizen Arlo Guthrie? Let’s say both.

In “Presidential Rag,” released a few months before Richard Nixon’s resignation as President, Guthrie does a stellar job reporting and lamenting the abuses of the Nixon White House. Though his words of anger are expressed calmly, the song is still a denunciation. It’s a gentle but commanding song with a melody somewhat resembling another of his originals, “Coming Into Los Angeles.” Guthrie’s performance is not as intensely delivered, but this time he’s dealing with the Commander In Chief, not the man in Customs. Still his soft delivery encompasses a sense of urgency about the plight of America in 1974.

A feeling of urgency was felt throughout America the first seven months and eight days of ’74, but not over Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Instead, the most immediate concerns of workaday Americans were the oil embargo and high food prices. The illegal activities of the Nixon White House were an affront to the nation, but people hoped all could be resolved. Richard Nixon would face  impeachment, or finally back down and resign from office.  He did so on the ninth day of August, with Gerald Ford, newly sworn in as President, declaring the “long national nightmare” behind us.

Ford was on to something. It was like a recurring nightmare, the same one throughout the night. The bad dream wasn’t so scary to make one feel urgently fearful, yet it was a nerve-wracking time.  Americans sensed the Constitution would work; but the nerve of Richard Nixon! How dare he put the nation through his struggles and further lunging and grasping for power? He leaves office only when convinced that members of his own party will not support him. Arlo Guthrie’s “Presidential Rag” splendidly captures the country’s exasperation with Nixon in those days.

Guthrie’s questions to Nixon may not be as sharply delivered as Dan Rather’s were, but they have a moral thrust all the same.

You said you didn’t know that the men with the bugs were there

And you’d never go along with that kind of stuff no-where

But that just isn’t the point, man, that’s the wrong, wrong way to go

If you didn’t know about that one well, then what else don’t you know?

Guthrie sized it up. Say what you will about Nixon, but a controlling executive such as he had to know of the law-breaking tactics his administration and reelection campaign used to keep him in power. He was no dummy. People who thought him like a shady used-car salesman also knew he was a keen observer of the geopolitical scene. Some of his foreign policy initiatives were visionary. And he was truly the one controlling his administration. He set the tone. So it was difficult to believe a freelancing group of Moe, Curly and Joe types were plotting burglaries and tapping phone lines.

In the song’s second verse, Guthrie takes on Nixon’s excuses and denials by observing “nobody could talk like you and know what’s going on.” As the song progresses, he questions the president’s claims that “it’s all fixed up now” and that he’s “got the new guys on the line.” With so many of the previous aides dealing with prosecutors and facing time, there was no choice but to get “new guys.” Still, a lot of the old problems remained; like the division and suffering brought on by the war in Vietnam, the one he promised to end peacefully and honorably.

Mothers are still weeping for their boys who went to war

And fathers are still asking what the whole damn thing was for

Guthrie has shifted from his role as reporter to that of concerned citizen. He has concerns, reminiscent of those felt by the Gary Cooper character in Meet John Doe. Guthrie’s concerned citizen then brings up Nixon’s desire to be remembered more favorably, as one who promoted  a “generation of peace.” His legacy was important to him and Nixon would spend most of the last 20 years of his life fine-tuning it.

Yes, you’ll be remembered, be remembered very well

And if I live a long life, oh, the stories I could tell

Of men and wars and poverty, of sickness and of greed

Hell yes, you’ll be remembered, be remembered very well

Nixon’s vanity could be comforted by knowing he’d be remembered favorably for detente with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, ending the draft, creating the EPA and other policies that would be anathema to modern day conservatives. He’d also be remembered for other things.

In the paper-of-record, The New York Times, Nixon’s obituary, dated April 24, 1994, opens with praise for his high intelligence and innovative concepts, but even in the opening paragraph, Guthrie’s observation is affirmed. The last sentence of the first paragraph reads,”Yet he was so motivated by hatreds and fears that he abused his powers and resorted to lies and cover-ups.”

“Presidential Rag” is probably the most direct political song written by Arlo Guthrie. Many of the songs he’s written and recorded throughout his career chronicle lives and events effected by things political. One can learn a lot of history by listening to his albums. Still he’s also inclined to present songs reflecting on everyday life.

Guthrie has proven a fine interpreter of classic material, some of it old, some not so, by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Steve Goodman, Leadbelly, Bob Dylan, even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And whether by birthright or sheer desire, he has long been one of the best at presenting his father Woody’s songs.

Arlo Guthrie says he’s not a politician and that he’s not running for anything. But he claims “sometimes you gotta say what’s on your mind, so that other people are comfortable telling you what’s on their mind. I like that environment.”

Currently his professional environment is shared on stage with three other generations of Guthries. His father’s songs join him, his children and their children on the “Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour.” It makes for a world of good music and a sterling example of “family values.” That’s something all politicians can endorse.

Arlo Guthrie and family ride into Atlanta on March 5, 8 pm at the Ferst Center for the Arts, Georgia Tech.

This article continues The Southern Song of The Day series.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

  1. Yeah, I remember China, the end of Vietnam and the draft, even the EPA and detente. But what I most remember about Richard Nixon was sitting out thunderstorms one afternoon in Florida, feeding quarters into tiny little black-and-white television sets in nameless airports while the Watergate hearings were going on.

  2. Janet Ward

    I take a back seat to no one in my hatred for Nixon, but he was one of the best presidents, from an environmental standpoint, of my lifetime. Not just EPA, but the Clean Water and Air acts, the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act. Of course, he didn’t have an insane Congress, which helped.

  3. I never heard Arlo Guthrie’s Presidential Rag song before. I just listened to it and was
    shocked I hadn’t in today’s political (ideology). I’ve never been a fan of the
    Iraq war and there after George W., but listening to this I was shocked at how
    perfect this explains his (Our) mistakes….

    Then I read it was about Nixon…not “W”. “Wow” !
    “You can kill two birds
    with one stone/song”.

    Amazing… how stupid we are.

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