I was revisiting this song by Bruce Hornsby and Don Henley recently when word was circulating that Texas governor Rick Perry might end up with the Republican nomination for president.
If you investigate the lyrics a bit, you encounter lines like,
O beautiful for spacious skies
Now those skies are threatening
They’re beating plowshares into swords
For this tired old man that we elected king
Armchair warriors often fail
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
If these lines are a bit too opaque, you might be tempted, as I was, to look into what Henley thinks they mean. I turned up the following, from “The White Paper: Don Henley’s ‘Inside Job,’ ” Billboard Magazine, April 8, 2000:
What do you think of [the album] The End of the Innocence from 1989?
I still love the song “New York Minute,” and “The Last Worthless Evening” is just straight-ahead pop, but it’s good. And of course, “The End of the Innocence”: that song is very fixed in time. I think it has enough universality that it could still apply to today, but it was about the whole Reagan era.”
If we look into the “plowshares into swords” line, we find that it’s a reference to the Biblical passages Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3:
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Reagan employed the concept in a United Nations General Assembly address in September of 1987:
I have spoken today of a vision and the obstacles to its realization. More than a century ago a young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited America. After that visit he predicted that the two great powers of the future world would be, on one hand, the United States, which would be built, as he said, “by the plowshare,” and, on the other, Russia, which would go forward, again, as he said, “by the sword.” Yet need it be so? Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?
The image displayed in David Fincher’s music video as Henley sings, “…for this tired old man that we elected king.”
Perhaps Henley viewed the Gipper’s peacenik statements as somewhat disingenuous considering that Reagan had, 6 months prior, said of Iran-Contra, “I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration.”*
Also in the Fincher music video, Oliver North testifies before Congress on someone’s little TV as Henley sings, “Lawyers clean up all details.”
Here’s Bruce Hornsby performing the song in 2006. Starting at 2:05 you can hear him change “They’re beating plowshares into swords / For this tired old man that they elected king” to “They’re beating plowshares into swords / For that tired old man that’s no longer king.”
Actually, I think Hornsby’s lyrical contemporization here is preferable to mine now that Rick Perry’s viability is in question. As you may hear in the recording, I change “tired old man” to, “Cocky Dick” (you know, the other nickname for “Richard”). I also change “armchair warriors often fail” to “laissez-faire has often failed.” I do this, of course, because I can’t help thinking of constant, frequently dogmatic, conservative support of deregulation.
Also, it seems unlikely that Iran-Contra was the only motive for Henley and Hornsby to pen this song. Henley, who calls himself a preservationist and environmentalist* is probably familiar with things like this:
Reagan…rolled back Carter’s CAFE standards for car gas mileage, slashed funding for renewable energy (sending the burgeoning industry into a freefall it still hasn’t recovered from), signed an executive order that forces unworkable evacuation plans on communities surrounding nuclear power plants, and unceremoniously ripped the solar panels off the White House. Reagan may have been a nice man, but he drove us right back into oil addiction, some say setting the stage for years of global conflict and indirect funding of terrorism.
From “9 U.S. Presidents with the Worst Environmental Records: Leaving a Legacy of Pollution and Destruction” by Brian Clark Howard for The Daily Green*