Political campaigns and popular music seem to go together. Whether it is “Happy Days Are Here Again” in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, John F. Kennedy’s use of “High Hopes” in 1960, or the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign’s “Don’t Stop,” politicians try to ride to office on the popularity of catchy tunes.
The phenomenon is not unique to the United States. Nor is it exclusive to democracies. Even cut-throat dictators have been known to give a nod to popular tunes, regardless of whether the voters have any other options.
2002 was a presidential election year in Iraq. We use that word “election” loosely since the outcome was never in doubt. Saddam Hussein was seeking reelection to the office he held since coming to power in 1979. With no other candidate seeking office, the question for the voters was whether Hussein should serve another 7-year term as president.
The world’s attention was very much on Iraq at that moment. Suspicions about Hussein’s involvement in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and possible development of weapons of mass destruction did nothing to improve his reputation as a brutal, ruthless despot.
Eager to show the world how popular he was with his people, Hussein launched a full-blown political campaign. To any outsider, it appeared as if there might be some undecided voters who could swing the outcome of the election. With great pageantry, Hussein traveled throughout the country, giving speeches, holding rallies, and kissing babies. At every event, his supporters could be seen wearing campaign buttons, waving pro-Hussein signs, and cheering excitedly at the sight of the candidate.
Hussein also added some musical flourish to the campaign stops. For his campaign theme song, the dictator chose “I Will Always Love You.” The song was originally written and recorded in 1973 by Dolly Parton. It became popular again in 1992 when Whitney Houston sang it as part of the soundtrack for the movie The Bodyguard. For Hussein’s campaign, he had Syrian pop star Mayyada Bselees record the love ballad in Arabic.
The message of the song, presumably, was twofold, It proclaimed Hussein’s undying affection for his people, and it gave Iraqis an opportunity to say, “Aw, shucks…. Ditto.”
As the date of the election approached, Hussein left nothing to chance. “I Will Always Love You” could be heard from dawn to dusk on Iraqi radio stations until the election was completed.
If the song had anything to do with the outcome of the election, it has to be the most effective campaign song in history. When the votes were counted on October 16, officials reported that every single one of the 11,445,638 registered voters turned out to cast their ballots. Every one of them said, “I Will Always Love You” with their vote, giving Hussein 100% of the popular vote.
Truly, a testamony to the persuasiveness of a good campaign song.
Although Hussein was re-elected to a 7-year term, he was out of a job less than six months later. His regime collapsed within weeks of the U.S. and Allied invasion of his country. Eight months after that, he was found hiding in a hole in the ground and was arrested, tried, and ultimately executed for crimes against humanity.
In retrospect, a more appropriate selection for his campaign theme song might have been “Eve of Destruction.”