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(Editor's Note: A version of this article first appeared on July 16, 2008.)


Sonny Bono Got it Right

June 12, 2011

Former pop star and California Congressman the late Sonny Bono was once asked what made for a great rock and roll song. Without hesitation he responded: "simplicity - keep it simple."

His theory was that a song should have a clear melody and simple lyrics so the public can easily recall the song when it’s played on the radio – which will increase record sales and move the song up the charts.

Bono also knew that by keeping the lyrics simple an artist can put passion and soul into the song’s vocals – a necessary ingredient for a hit song.

It’s easy to see why Congressman Bono enjoyed a successful singing and political career – he understood what so many do not – simplicity is exactly what makes for a great song – or a great political campaign.

Even a casual observer can see that so many political campaigns miss the mark entirely on Bono's theory. They are routinely muddled with ever changing messages, themes, explanations, clarifications and surrogate miscues. There's little wonder that voters struggle to figure out exactly where a candidate stands on issues such as the economy, Iraq, immigration, and the price of gasoline.

One would think that today’s political strategists would understand what Bono had to say about music and apply it to politics. Or better still take a cue from the past races where simple themes were applied across the board. As far back as 1948 in the barnstorming whistle-stop campaign of Harry Truman - a sure loser against Thomas Dewey - voters have responded to a simple message.

In Truman’s case it was "Give’m Hell Harry" and it scored one of the greatest upsets in all of Presidential politics.

In 1960 voters responded to a youthful John Kennedy and his campaign pledge to "get the country moving again" as the World War II generation grew restless in the aftermath of its great war triumph during eight complacent years of  Dwight Eisenhower.

It’s a bit ironic that Richard Nixon’s winning theme of 1968 was his simple pledge to "Bring Us Together" – but it worked as the turmoil of the Viet Nam War raged on.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter promised voters that he would "never tell a lie"and he would bring a government to Washington that was "as good as its people." It was a fresh change for the voters and they responded - rejecting President Jerry Ford and his "WIN" button strategy (Whip Inflation Now) in favor of the simple Carter theme.

In 1980, it was Jimmy Carter who got himself bogged down in the minutia of big government while Ronald Reagan unleashed the American spirit by running a campaign on the theme that "government isn't the solution - government is the problem".

The voters liked this message and responded to Reagan again in 1984 when his economic theories proved correct and he campaigned on the simple theme that "It's Morning in America."

Reagan’s opponent Walter Mondale also had a simple campaign message in 1984 - he pledged to raise taxes! The voters understood both messages and chose Reagan in a landslide.

In the end, the likely winner of any campaign is the candidate who articulates a simple message - one that the voters can easily embrace.

Historians may long argue over whether a certain campaign theme was an accurate portrayal of public policy - but the simple fact is Sonny Bono was right when he said: "keep things simple."

Look no further than the simple song he wrote for "Sonny and Cher"in 1965 - their biggest single and their signature song: "I Got You Babe".

It went straight to number one.