Frank Sinatra and Politics

Frank Sinatra and Politics

His impact on the presidency, then and now

Article by Steve Pond
“a very
subtle force in
civil rights"

Barack Obama loves Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone…and Frank Sinatra.

John McCain is partial to ABBA, Roy Orbison, Merle Haggard…and Frank Sinatra.

The two presidential candidates may not agree on much, but when they were asked to provide a list of their ten favorite songs shortly before the summer conventions, one artist showed up on both lists. Not that they agreed on which Sinatra song was best: McCain opted for “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” while Obama chose “You’d Be So Easy to Love.”

But whoever wins the election, it’s clear that Sinatra’s music will continue to be heard in the White House—which makes perfect sense, because Sinatra himself was always welcomed into those halls, beginning during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency and continuing into the administration of Bill Clinton.

It was a natural kinship, the master entertainer and the top politicians. "They are sprung from the same DNA, for God's sake,” said the late Jack Valenti, who himself encompassed both politics and show business in a career that included stints in the Johnson administration and the Motion Picture Association of America. “They are always onstage. They are always performing."

For Sinatra, interest and involvement in politics was second nature, instilled when he was growing up in New Jersey by a mother who’d worked as a Democratic Party committeewoman.

“My mother had me in an election parade when I was a young boy,” he once said. “I never thought about it; I just think it is the duty of every American citizen to take part in political races and vote.”

Over the years, Sinatra publicly campaigned for candidates on both sides of the political spectrum; produced Inaugural Galas for a Democratic president, and a Republican one; and received many of the highest honors his government can bestow on a private citizen.

But his political activism wasn’t limited to supporting candidates. Sinatra also worked tirelessly for certain causes, becoming particularly known for fighting racism and segregation.

In 1945, he appeared in, produced and won an Oscar for the 1945 short film “The House I Live In,” a plea for tolerance. Later, he put his own career at risk when he refused to play hotels in Las Vegas that would not allow blacks to stay there. He was, actress Angie Dickinson recalled, “a very powerful, subtle force in civil rights…not only in Las Vegas.”

The repercussions never worried him. “When I believe in a person or an idea or a cause,” Sinatra once said, “I go all out in my efforts regardless of possible consequences.”

His work began early in his life, and continued well into his final decade. On July 4, 1991, Sinatra, at the age of 75, wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times and summed up one of the driving passions of his life.

“[W]hy do I still hear race- and color-haters spewing their poisons?” he wrote. “Why do I still flinch at innuendoes of venom and inequality? Why do innocent children still grow up to be despised? Why do haters' jokes still get big laughs when passed in whispers from scum to scum? …Why do so many among us continue in words and deeds to ignore, insult and challenge the unforgettable words of Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence's promise to every man, woman and child -- the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?”

Sinatra’s patriotism may have sprung from the words of our third president, Thomas Jefferson, but he came to have dealings with nearly a dozen of Jefferson’s predecessors. It began in 1944 with an invitation to tea from Franklin Roosevelt, then in his third term in the White House but under fire from more conservative voices in the press, particularly the Hearst papers. Sinatra, who’d been a target in some of the same papers, met FDR, gave him some inside info about the pop charts, and couldn’t believe how far a crooner beloved by the bobby-soxers had come. Roosevelt, he said, was “the greatest guy alive today, and here’s this little guy from Hoboken shaking his hand.”

He did more than just shake FDR’s hand; he contributed to the Democratic Party, appeared at the party’s subsequent rally at Madison Square Garden, and became a close enough friend to Eleanor Roosevelt that he later invited her onto his television show as a guest.

Sinatra would campaign for FDR’s successor, Harry S. Truman, during his re-election campaign in 1948, and do the same for unsuccessful Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson in both 1952 and 1956. (The latter year, he also sang the National Anthem at the Democratic National Convention, as he did again in 1960.)

But his closest relationship with a president came with John F. Kennedy. He met Kennedy in the late 1950s through fellow “Rat Pack” member Peter Lawford, who married Kennedy’s sister Pat. “There’s a senator here tonight, and this senator is running for president or something, and we play golf together, we go fishing together, and he’s one of my best buddies,” said Dean Martin from the stage when JFK attended one of the legendary “Summit” shows at the Sands hotel. “What the hell is his name?”

Sinatra campaigned for Kennedy throughout the country in 1960, and his friends Martin, Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. did the same. At Kennedy’s campaign stops, Sinatra’s voice was heard even if he wasn’t physically present: the campaign’s theme song, played before every appearance, was a newly recorded version of “High Hopes,” specially recorded by Sinatra with new lyrics saluting JFK.

Immediately after the election, Kennedy spent two nights at Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs. Sinatra placed a bronze plaque on the door of the guest room: “John F. Kennedy slept here November 6th and 7th, 1960.”

In January, Sinatra and Peter Lawford flew to Washington on Kennedy’s private plane to plan an Inaugural Gala that would include performances by Mahalia Jackson, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Kelly, Leonard Bernstein and of course Sinatra. “Tonight, we saw excellence,” said the new president.

Three years later, Sinatra was filming Robin and the 7 Hoods in a Burbank cemetery when he was told that Kennedy had been assassinated. He quickly finished the scene, then went to his home in Palm Springs and, according to Nancy Sinatra, “virtually disappeared,” grieving alone in his bedroom for three days.

It would be almost two decades before Sinatra would forge as close a relationship with a president—and when he did, it would be with a Republican. The first sign that his politics were changing came in 1970, when he spoke out in support of former actor Ronald Reagan, who was running for re-election as governor of California. Sinatra urged his old Hollywood friend to move more to the center; he also remained a registered Democrat who broke with Reagan’s views on issues like abortion.

But in the next presidential election, he also opted for the Republican, announcing his support of Richard Nixon in July 1972. “The older you get the more conservative you get,” he explained to his daughter Tina, who admitted that she was furious. “I called him and said, ‘Goddamn it, I’ve been working for George McGovern for six months,’” said Tina. “’I haven’t swayed 20 voters and you just probably swayed two million.’”

During Nixon’s presidency, Sinatra visited the White House several times, and actively supported Nixon’s controversial moves to recognize the People’s Republic of China, an action Sinatra had been advocating for years. At one 1973 White House performance, Nixon introduced Sinatra as “the Washington Monument of entertainment,” and urged the singer to reconsider the retirement he’d announced almost two years earlier. “Mr. President, after tonight, I’ll have to think about it,” said Sinatra, who began recording his comeback album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, less than two months later.

By the end of the decade, the un-retired singer had found another candidate he could support as wholeheartedly as Kennedy. When Ronald Regan ran for president in 1979, Sinatra campaigned harder than he had since 1960. (He attracted artist Andy Warhol to one Reagan benefit at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York; Warhol admitted that he attended as a Sinatra fan, not a Reagan supporter.)

In January 1981, he produced Reagan’s Inaugural Gala, lining up a slate of performers that included Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Charlton Heston.

"I don't view the inaugural as political," he said when asked about producing Reagan's show. "If Walter Mondale had won, and if he had asked me to do what Mr. Reagan asked me to do in connection with his inaugural, I'd have been there."

Throughout Reagan’s presidency, Sinatra made frequent trips to the White House, as well as serving on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. In 1985, Reagan presented him with the Congressional Medal of Freedom at a White house ceremony; it was, friends said, one of the proudest days of his life.

Sinatra remained friends with both Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and later sang at George H.W. Bush’s first Inaugural Gala as well. Though he’d long been identified with Republican presidents, he met Bill Clinton at a small dinner party in Los Angeles after Clinton became president; at the party, Clinton later recalled, the two men talked about Sinatra’s admiration for the Kennedys, and his pride in having been associated with that administration.

Now, ten years after Sinatra’s death, two new presidential candidates have saluted his music. If he were alive, he probably wouldn’t be shy about using his influence to sway a few voters one way or another—and then, regardless of which candidate was elected, he’d likely accept an invitation to visit the White House. He’d go there not as a Democrat or a Republican, but as an American patriot who respected the office and felt it was his right and duty to take part in the political process.

“Today after the rehearsal I looked at the paintings of President and Mrs. Washington and thought about the modest dignity of the presidency up through the years to now, and our president,” Sinatra said after one visit to the White House. “It makes me very proud of my country.”

Many of the quotes in this article were taken from The Sinatra Treasures, by Charles Pignone, and Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, by Nancy Sinatra