Political Hay

Q&A for Bruce Springsteen

For a pretty good musician he's a lousy political Boss.

By 8.9.04

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Bruce Springsteen explained why he was participating in the Vote for Change Tour, dedicated to defeating President Bush in November. He also tried to portray his political involvement as a new development, claiming that "I have always stayed one step away from partisan politics." For an artist who usually shows respect for his audience's intelligence, such a claim was surprising. Springsteen has been a dedicated liberal his entire career. In the seventies, he played at the No Nukes shows. In the eighties, he spoke out, albeit obliquely, against President Reagan, and was infuriated when the Reagan campaign tried to use his "Born in the U.S.A." as a theme song (he has not objected to the Kerry campaign's use of "No Surrender"). In the nineties, he disparaged Newt Gingrich during his tour for The Ghost of Tom Joad. He exploited the Amadou Diallo incident in New York with a tawdry song called "American Skin," the closest he has come to musical ambulance chasing. And on his most recent tour he talked of impeaching President Bush.

Springsteen may not have endorsed a candidate before now, but you don't have to be a pundit to guess how he votes. I'm tempted to go on a digression about how liberals are always trying to hide their real views -- if there's nothing dishonorable in being a liberal, why not just admit it? -- but I'd rather focus on something else.

I'd like to help Springsteen answer the four "hard questions" he posed in his Times op-ed. I wish they had some of the depth of his finest songs, but then, that is holding Springsteen to an unfair standard.

Springsteen asks: Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens?

Perhaps, Bruce, you should ask why the wealthiest nation in the world has found it so hard to be honest with its weakest citizens. And you shouldn't confuse outcomes with efforts -- no nation has tried harder to lift its poor out of poverty. By the way, while we're on the subject of poverty, what do you make of President Bush's efforts to allow the parents of poor kids to choose their own schools? What about his attempt to let religiously affiliated charities have their share of the tax dollars that go to organizations trying to help the poor?

Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race?

Why indeed? But for this to be a "hard question," Bruce, you need to direct it at those who haven't heard it before: like the NAACP, whose leader compared President Bush to a pimp, or Al Sharpton, who recently implied that President Bush was a segregationist at heart, or your friends on the Left who continue to allege that the Bush campaign "disenfranchised" black voters in Florida, despite the unfortunate absence of any evidence whatsoever for this charge. Asking questions about race, Bruce, is not so hard anymore -- our nation is inundated with race talk. Our previous president even appointed a commission to talk about it full-time. You want answers? Then ask questions of everyone, not just your favorite targets.

How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear?

With great care and a good faith effort to adhere to our founding principles; in practice, it often comes down to trial and error. You obviously don't like the results of some of those efforts. Assuming, on a wild guess, that you are referring to the Patriot Act, may I ask you: When was the last time you took a commercial flight? Would you acknowledge that those who can't charter their own planes might feel differently about this law than you and your fellow millionaires?

Why does the fulfillment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach?

Because we're mortals, not gods. You've written enough songs about man's fallibility, inserting enough Biblical allusions to last several careers, that I'm surprised you would have to ask.

When the Vote for Change tour rolls around in October, some of us will watch and wonder: how would our nation's artists have responded if President Clinton had overthrown two dictatorships, liberated a significant portion of women in the Muslim world, and captured or killed two-thirds of al Qaeda?

Now there's a hard question I'd love to hear Bruce Springsteen answer.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.