Holding a fundraiser at the home of a lobbyist isn't that odd, unfortunately; Democratic fundraising is dominated by corporate lobbyists and corporate contributions, just like Republican. Warren Beatty, still pondering an anti-politics-as-usual presidential bid, has a point: Washington's political community is hardly diverse, particularly when one looks at who pays to keep it afloat. Hillary Clinton is a status-quo liberal who's shown little taste for challenging the fundamental flaws of the political system. Consequently, she easily hobnobs with those who peddle private influence over public interest. In her village, some citizens are more equal than others, which is fine by her.
The Boss-In-Chief? The possible Beatty candidacy has been keeping progressive politicos atwitter. But is a Hollywood actor-producer-director the best hope for those who call for worker-friendly and consumer-friendly?as opposed to corporate-friendly?policies and priorities? Is there no one else? Even Beatty has questioned whether he is the person best suited to lead the charge.
At a rock concert last week, I glimpsed another possibility. In the lobby of the MCI Center in Washington, there was a boy, 10 years old or so, wearing a t-shirt that read, "Springsteen for President." If a magazine publisher or television debater or data company CEO or professional wrestler can run or consider running, why not a musician? Springsteen long has been an icon-with-substance for the working class. In a quiet fashion, he has supported a variety of causes and do-good outfits (alternative energy, food banks, the Vietnam Veterans of America). He donated tickets to the first of his three Washington shows to World Hunger Year, an anti-hunger nonprofit, and from the stage he praised the Capital Area Community Food Bank. ("The economy is not benefiting all," Springsteen said.) The songs he has written and performed have brought a human touch to many issues: farm policy ("Seeds"), the plight of American steelworkers ("Youngstown"), income inequality and the downside of globalization ("The Ghost of Tom Joad"), telecommunications ("57 Channels"), AIDS ("Streets of Philadelphia"), veterans affairs ("Born in the USA"), urban dislocation ("My Hometown") and war ("War"). He also has not been reluctant to express his dismay with political leaders. Last week, he told the audience in Washington that many people are lost in confusion and bitterness?"especially here."
Springsteen could easily reach out to various constituencies. He'd be a hit with Hispanic voters, for he participated in protests against the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California. Thanks to the presence of saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, Springsteen's E Street Band was one of the few muscle-rock groups to be racially integrated. And the Boss also boasts ideological crossover potential. Before the first Washington show, I ran into Brent Bozell, a leading hard-right activist, at the liquor store next to the arena. Don't tell me, I said to him, that you're a Springsteen fan. "Me and my whole family," he answered with a smile. Don't you know, I asked, that he stands for everything you're against?social justice, communal values, government assistance for the less fortunate? Bozell, who spends much of his life searching for left-wing bias in the establishment media, nodded and remarked. "All my favorite musicians and actors are communists." You may wonder how a conservative like Bozell can get juiced up by a compassionate liberal populist like Springsteen. (The Ghost of Tom Joad was a direct whack at the laissez-faire triumphalism of Newt Gingrich's so-called Republican revolution.) But Bozell may be part of a trend.
At the same show, I encountered a television news producer I know. She was so excited she was practically shaking. "My two all-time heroes," she explained, "are Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen." In a political sense, Springsteen is the anti-Reagan. In 1984, he responded quite angrily when Reagan, at the behest of columnist George Will, tried to appropriate "Born in the USA." (That was a foolish move on Reagan and Will's part, since the tune, despite its upbeat tag line, was about the alienation and bitterness of veterans who had been sent to fight a pointless war in Vietnam. In concert these days, Springsteen reclaims the song by performing it solo as he originally conceived it?a stark, haunting number with only an eerily reverbed acoustic guitar to accompany his twangy vocals. No one could mistake it for a jingoistic, patriotic anthem.) Might there be a voting bloc political scientists will one day dub "Springsteen Republicans," a la Reagan Democrats?
At the core of Springsteen's music is the recognition that yearning is an essential part of life, a fundamental message that appeals to those in different ideological and demographic categories. His imagery and poetry has been that of the working-class male. But yuppie lawyers, soccer moms and right-wing media analysts can identify with Springsteen's admonition that it is okay to reach far, to wish for much. And they're drawn to his sympathetic identification with those who fall short of their dreams. Perhaps candidate Springsteen could first reach people at this gut level?and then persuade them to support a boost in the minimum wage, fair trade pacts, campaign finance reform, government funds for rebuilding economically distressed areas (a notion he's previously advocated), universal health coverage and laws that bolster union organizing.
I admit that the Springsteen for President cause is a long shot. Springsteen has always shied away from conventional politics. As he told his Washington audience, he doesn't endorse presidential candidates. When he came to Washington in 1995 on his solo Tom Joad tour, he turned down an offer to visit the White House of Bill Clinton. "In my opinion," he explained at the time, "the artist has to keep his distance." He's self-effacing and doesn't like to make promises he cannot keep. ("I can't promise you life ever after," he shouted as a mock-preacher at the MCI Center. "But I can promise you life right now.") In an interview several years ago, he told me, "I don't like the soapbox stuff. I don't believe you can tell people anything. You can show them things... I don't set out to make a point. I set out to create understanding and compassion."
In a time when Jesse Ventura can be considered a presidential contender, the field truly is wide open. Sure, Springsteen may not be as steeped in policy details as Al Gore or Bill Bradley. But he is just as, if not more, thoughtful. And aren't his leadership and communication skills more developed? Isn't he more sincere? Doesn't he empathize more with common voters? This hardworking working-class rocker who became a multimillionaire without any help from his father probably is too modest to seek the presidency. But there are other options. Beatty, should he enter the race, will need a running mate. And isn't there an open Senate seat in New Jersey? After all, that's a state with a history of electing to office someone who performs well in basketball arenas. Springsteen might be more born-to-run than he ever imagined.
Those Wacky Candidates Does campaigning for president lower one's IQ? It is amazing how many howlers come from the wannabes. Take Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican whose late entry into the race remains inexplicable (unless one attributes it to an outsized ego that causes him to bristle as he watches other GOPers win attention). Hatch is not a dumb man. In fact, he can be quite clever. But recently he said, "I am the first and only presidential candidate who is talking about improving race relations as part of our national dialogue." Doesn't Hatch read the paper? Bill Bradley has given a race speech practically every week since he entered the race early this year, although his race shtick is a bit retro. He acts as if it's 1950 and he's just discovered there is a race problem. And his proposed solution is mainly acknowledgment there is a problem and frank conversation. But Bradley has been trying, and anyone following the presidential contest knows that. Quick?tell me anything Hatch has said regarding race.
Then there's our perennial whipping boy/vice president. Not too long ago, when Dan Quayle was on ABC's This Week, he argued that Texas Gov. George W. Bush was a novice on the national stage and not of sufficient heft to go toe-to-toe with Gore or Bradley. "You want somebody that has been tested," Quayle chirped. "You want somebody that has been in the crucible. You want somebody who has been in the line of fire, so to speak, on debating these issues. I debated Al Gore, rather enjoyed that evening in October of 1992. Al Gore is a very good debater." Let's be glad Quayle had a good time that night. But here's what counts: Quayle lost the election. This is his best selling point? That he has experience debating the fellow who helped boot him and President Bush out of the White House?
Another great line came from Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican who's supporting GOP candidate Elizabeth Dole. Fowler was asked if Dole should clarify her position on the creationism-vs.-evolution debate. (Dole, who dares to be the first woman president, ducked taking a stand in this ideological tussle.) "I'm not really sure that's something [people] need to know," Fowler said. No need to know? In her stock campaign speech, Dole tells all about how she was treated at Harvard Law School decades ago. But, as creationists across the country are making advances, Dole doesn't have to share her views on this matter? Her position on school prayer is probably classified as well.