Singing to the President

“Cineminute” is a short video of Duane and his guitar talking about this post. To view it click this link.

Last week (November 9, 2010 ‘Ghosting for the Presidents’) I alluded to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to President Ronald Reagan during the parade at his first term inauguration in 1981.

I thought it was a memorable moment. But memorable moments don’t just happen. So, as Paul Harvey used to say, “This is the rest of the story.”

That election saw a surge of support for Reagan from some conservative churches. While the Republicans appreciated the support, they didn’t want to overemphasize it, and thereby alienate other power bases of the party, so they ruled that no churches could be represented in the parade.

I was writing some scripts for the Osmonds at that time, and I knew they had been helping with Reagan’s campaign, and that they wanted to have the Tabernacle Choir included in the parade. Bill Critchfield, president of the Osmond operation was a fearless and effective negotiator. He told the Republican powers that the choir was not just the Mormon Choir. Reagan himself dubbed it “America’s choir.”

Bill rolled out his heavy artillery. The choir was born in the cowboy country of the old west, had performed for 10 previous presidents going back to William Howard Taft, consoled the country for the whole day on CBS radio when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. The Choir has won gold and platinum records, and a Grammy, is an unofficial American ambassador to millions in other countries, has the longest running program in American radio history, and is the standard against which every performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is measured, He convinced them that the world and the inauguration would be bleak indeed without the choir in the parade.

The party officials capitulated, but with one stern stipulation. The choir could not stop to sing in front of the president’s box. Nothing would stop the parade.

Ironically, I had worked with Bill when I was president of America’s Freedom Festival at Provo. Bill was our parade expert since he had been an official at the Rose Parade in Pasadena California, probably the world’s premier parade. Bill was adamant with us that our parade have, no gaps, and certainly no stops. When the Republican bosses told Bill the parade would not stop, they were preaching to the choir (no pun intended)

But even choirs have to weigh one virtue against another. To build the massive float (actually one float the maximum size that would make it around the corners, then they hooked on a smaller trailer float to hold the rest of the choir), to transport the choir and their entourage to Washington D.C., bus them around, feed and house them, and then not sing “Glory, glory hallelujah” to the president was like writing the Declaration of Independence and not signing it.

But good fortune sometimes smiles on worthy deeds. Fortunately as the choir float came abreast of the president’s box its tow truck’s engine died. The driver jumped out, threw open the hood and worked frantically to correct the problem.

Fortunately he fixed it, just as the last, “His truth is marching on” echoed over the crowd, and president Reagan wiped a tear from his cheek. The truck engine roared to life, and the parade rolled on.

Fortunately the mechanical problem only cost $50 to fix. And fortunately the repair bill had been covered by an anonymous donor a few hours earlier in this exchange:

Anonymous donor, “How much to have engine trouble in front of the president’s box?”

Truck driver: “Fifty bucks should do it.”

Bill told me later that somebody blew his cover to Church president Spencer W. Kimball. The whistle blower apparently hoped to whip up a scandal. The president listened then replied with a twinkle, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”