Do musicians make great presidents?

If Trump had studied music…

At her spring student recital this month, my piano-teacher wife cited the basic mantra of the visionary musical pedagogue Dr. Shinichi Suzuki: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”

Nixon played the accordion, too. (Photo via Wikipedia.)

Since it takes years to master a musical instrument, Suzuki observed, anyone who sticks with it develops not only musical proficiency but something even rarer these days: an appreciation for how long it takes to truly master any task. (Or as the violinist Pinchas Zukerman put it equally succinctly: “You can’t make music in a microwave oven.”)

Since this is a presidential election year, that got me thinking: If mastering music produces good citizens and “a beautiful heart,” how many politicians have studied a musical instrument long enough to play with some competence? And how did that experience affect their performance in office? And that got me to spend an afternoon aggressively Googling one obvious control group: the 43 men who have served as United States presidents.

At first glance the results seemed dismaying. Only 14 presidents — fewer than one-third — studied any musical instrument. If you eliminate Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan — both of whom played only the harmonica — we’re down to a mere dozen musician presidents.

Even more disturbing, two of the best musicians to occupy the White House were also two of the worst presidents. Warren Harding, at age 18, led a cornet band that placed third in the Ohio State Band Festival; it was once said of him that he could play any instrument but the slide trombone. Richard Nixon, a classically trained pianist, performed creditably during his presidential years at the Grand Ole Opry, on Jack Paar’s late-night TV show, and at a White House reception (where he serenaded the jazz legend Duke Ellington with “Happy Birthday”). Yet these two musicians are mostly remembered for orchestrating not music but scandals (Teapot Dome and Watergate, respectively) that undermined Americans’s faith in government for at least a decade each.

Jefferson’s passion

Nor was John Tyler, who played the violin, much of a poster boy for Suzuki philosophy. As president from 1841 to 1845, Tyler opposed his own Whig Party’s platform, vetoed several Whig proposals, and consequently was expelled from the Whig Party. Sixteen years later, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Tyler cast his lot with the South and served as a Confederate congressman until 1862, when the Grim Reaper mercifully spared him from further embarrassment.

So far, so bad for Suzuki. However, if you focus not on our worst presidents but on the greatest, you get a very different picture.

Of the half-dozen presidents commonly ranked by historians as our very best, five — all but Washington — studied some musical instrument. Jefferson played the cello, clavichord, and violin, and once called music "the favorite passion of my soul.” Woodrow Wilson as well is described as a “somewhat accomplished violinist”; in his younger days he also sang tenor in the Virginia Glee Club. Lincoln reputedly played the violin too, although I’ve never heard him described as “accomplished” (music may be the only category in which Lincoln paled by comparison with Warren Harding).

Franklin D. Roosevelt played the piano and also sang (soprano!) in his school choir. Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel were adept on both guitar and banjo; the hootenannies they hosted at the Hermitage are said to have planted the seeds of Nashville’s music tradition a century before the Grand Ole Opry arrived.

Truman’s heart

But the shining Suzuki example is a president who’s usually ranked in the “near-great” category just below the above six. As a child, Harry Truman practiced the piano for two hours a day until he turned 15. As president he continued to play piano in the White House; more important, he successfully concluded World War II, created the United Nations, rebuilt Western Europe, submitted the first civil rights legislation and integrated the U.S. armed forces. The Philadelphia wheeler-dealer Albert M. Greenfield, a friend of four presidents (Hoover, FDR, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson), once explained that Truman was his favorite because “the man who governs our country must govern with his heart as well as his head"; precisely what Dr. Suzuki had in mind.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about our other musician presidents:

  • John Quincy Adams studied the flute and violin, although, to judge from his diary, not very well. "I am extremely fond of music,” he wrote, “and by dint of great pains have learnt to blow very badly the flute. But could never learn to perform upon the violin, because I never could acquire the art of putting the instrument in tune." Adams wasn’t effective as a president either (although later, as a congressman, he became a highly effective early advocate for the abolition of slavery).
  • Chester Arthur played the banjo.

Clinton’s other career

  • And of course Bill Clinton — whose place in history remains to be resolved — won first chair in the Arkansas state band saxophone section and considered making a career of the tenor sax. In 1993, at a White House celebration of the Newport Jazz Festival's 40th anniversary, he jammed onstage with jazz sax legends such as Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, and Thelonius Monk. 

And no, I found no evidence that Donald Trump ever studied a musical instrument. According to most biographies (including his own), the young Trump was a hyperactive and rebellious kid (I surmise that he may have suffered from attention deficit disorder before that condition was identified). When he turned 13, his desperate parents packed him off to a military academy, where he thrived under a regime of sports and discipline but no music. Pity.

To read Joseph Glantz's article about presidential reading habits, click here.

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on May 25, 2016

Dan, Thanks to you, happy days are here again. I thank you profusely for finding something in this election to make us laugh. You did, however, not mention any tuneful gifts from Hillary. What's up with her music?

Author's Response

Unlike Trump, young Hillary was an honor student and teacher's pet. In school she swam and played baseball, joined the Brownies and Girl Scouts, worked on school newspapers and was elected to student council. But like Trump, she never studied music, as far as I can tell.

Roz Warren

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on May 31, 2016

I thought Presidential politics had been covered from every possible angle — but this is a new one! A fascinating read. Thanks.

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