George Bush was not exactly known for having a rock ’n’ roll side.
But as part of his inaugural festivities in 1989, the 41st president had an unusual photo-op at a concert, hamming it up on a prop guitar while soul-music stars like Sam Moore, Carla Thomas and Percy Sledge smiled around him.
Right next to the new president was Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, who was criticized then — and is best remembered now — for racially inflammatory tactics like the notorious Willie Horton TV spot, which featured the mug shot of Horton, an African-American prisoner who raped a white woman while out on a weekend furlough.
News photographs of Bush’s air-guitar moment have been widely disseminated, particularly since Bush’s death on Friday. But video of the moment itself has been largely unseen until now.
The concert, masterminded by Atwater, a big fan of blues and soul music, featured a rare constellation of mostly black stars like Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor and Albert Collins. Yet when a DVD of the show was released four years ago, Bush’s appearance, along with Atwater’s frenetic dancing and (real) guitar playing, had been discreetly edited out. (Brief snippets were in “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story,” a 2008 documentary.)
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Howell Beagle, a Washington lawyer who helped produce the show and later acquired the copyright to the film, said those parts had been cut because his film rights included only the performances, not the political figures. But since Bush’s death, Beagle said, he decided to make the footage public, and will be giving a copy of it to Bush’s presidential library.
The nearly 24 minutes of footage includes the new president and first lady entering the venue — not to “Hail to the Chief” but to “Soul Finger,” a greasy instrumental classic from 1967. After Atwater leads a nine-minute jam on the R&B nugget “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” Bush takes the stage and promises the crowd that he and his wife “will try faithfully to be good custodians of the people’s house.”
After being presented with the gift of a white Gibson Epiphone guitar, with “The Prez” painted in red, that custodian then mock-strummed it, bobbed his head and smiled broadly for a minute before exiting stage right.
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Seen now, it seems like a moment of lighthearted, even goofy fun for a buttoned-up president.
But at the time, the news media attacked the whole affair as a cynical victory lap by Atwater, an exploitation of black artists after running a racially charged campaign. Spy magazine, for example, ran a cartoon of Atwater in blackface. Atwater died of cancer in 1991, at the age of 40.
Beagle said that after the concert was finished, the Republican National Committee took possession of all the concert footage and placed it in storage, where it was apparently lost. (The DVD was made from a copy that had been stored separately, with audiotapes.)
“The Republican Party had no interest in preserving this,” Beagle said.
Yet the opinion of the musicians was not nearly so negative. In interviews with The New York Times in 2014, before the release of the DVD, many of the surviving performers said they had been paid well and given first-class accommodations, and that for them it was simply an honor to perform for a president, no matter the politics.
Moore, who went on to develop a close connection to the Bush family, said in an interview that for him politics had played no part in the event, adding that it was unfair Atwater was called a racist.
“He was not a racist,” Moore said, “not to me.”