Flashback: Merle Haggard Sings for President Nixon on St. Patrick’s Day
In March 1973, Merle Haggard and the Strangers released a new single called “The Emptiest Arms in the World,” a boozy, forlorn honky-tonk ballad from the soon-to-be-released I Love Dixie Blues LP. The country song’s lonely main character, however, might well have been positively giddy compared to the actual country’s beleaguered leader. President Richard Nixon was at an all-time high 67% approval rating at the time of his inauguration. But with the Watergate scandal dominating national news, Nixon’s numbers soon went into freefall — and never recovered.
It’s no wonder, then, that following what was at the time the most expense inauguration in U.S. history, the president took every opportunity he could to celebrate special occasions and put on a brave face for the public. On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1973, that brave face was accompanied by a bow tie awash in shades of green, which, according to former presidential military aide and author Col. Stephen Bauer, Nixon had spotted on a White House doorman and swapped for his own black tie just before walking into the East Room. The musical accompaniment for the evening was two of country music’s top performing acts of the era — Grand Ole Opry bluegrass stars the Osborne Brothers and superstar poet of the common man Merle Haggard.
At the gala event attended by members of Congress and guests from all over the U.S., Nixon noted that First Lady Pat Nixon’s birthday, which took place a day earlier, was also being celebrated. For a woman born Thelma Catherine Ryan and nicknamed “Pat” by her father because of her family’s Irish ancestry and the closeness of her birthday to St. Patrick’s Day, this musical party would include an expected tribute from Haggard: the reading of a poem he had penned for the First Lady.
“We think St. Patrick would have really appreciated our bringing American music to this American audience tonight,” Nixon said. “They tell me there’s only one thing stronger than country moonshine. That’s country music. Well, now we’ll find out.”
In the video above, the Osborne Brothers perform a blazing version of their 1967 hit “Rocky Top,” before Haggard, with then-wife Bonnie Owens and the Strangers at his back, is seen onstage defying St. Paddy’s Day tradition, wearing a red shirt, vest and pants, and donning a white cowboy hat. As an American flag backdrop is raised behind the band, the audience applauds their patriotic approval, which reaches a fever pitch (albeit a low-grade fever for the generally staid crowd) when Haggard and company open with “Okie From Muskogee.” One of the songs that three years earlier Johnny Cash had declined to play at the White House in April 1970 (because he didn’t have enough time to learn it, according to his 1997 autobiography), its opening line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” elicits a vigorous response and the songwriter amends his lyrics, singing of Muskogee’s respectable citizens not letting their hair grow “long and nasty, filthy, dirty” like those unkempt San Francisco hippies.
After “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” as the band plays “America, the Beautiful,” Haggard notes, “I don’t exactly know what to say except I know that this will probably be the greatest evening of my life.” The music continues behind him as he begins to read the poem written for Mrs. Nixon: “Today is somebody’s birthday, some mother’s child was born, some will remember and some will forget and some will be tootin’ their horn/ The older you are the more it means ‘cause the more you have to recall. Today is somebody’s birthday and may it be the greatest of all.” Haggard presents the poem to the First Lady, clearly touched by the gesture, before she and President Nixon take the stage to greet Haggard, the Osborne Brothers and the bands.
In his closing remarks, Nixon recalls a political rally before the 1952 presidential election, when he was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate (an election they won) and one of the stops included Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he spoke to a large crowd during halftime at a local football game. He closes by telling the guests, “We can’t offer you moonshine, we can’t offer you Irish whiskey but there is California champagne. Watch out!”
One year later, the President and First Lady would celebrate her birthday as guests of the Grand Ole Opry. On Saturday, March 16th, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon were honored as the Opry made its debut at the lavish new Grand Ole Opry House, with Nixon telling Roy Acuff, who had presented him with one of his trademark yo-yo’s, “I’ll stay here and try to learn to yo-yo, and you go and be president for a while.” Five months later, Nixon resigned.