The art of political speechmaking is now so lost to the dark machinations of the spin doctors, pollsters and pundits that most Americans have never heard a live campaign speech of any particular consequence. Perhaps that is why the crowd of 80,000 people who rallied for John Kerry on Thursday in Madison, Wisconsin, fell so completely silent a few minutes into what turned out to be the most poignant and powerful election address of 2004.
The speaker was not a candidate. Rather, the words that cut through the rhetorical fog were those of a guitar player from New Jersey.
“As a songwriter, I’ve written about America for 30 years,” explained Bruce Springsteen, after he finished playing the appropriately chosen song, “Promised Land.”
“I’ve tried to write about who we are, what we stand for, what we fight for,” he continued. “I believe that these essential ideals of American identity are what’s at stake on November 2.”
Springsteen’s voice did not rise with the false drama of electioneering.
His words mingled so smoothly with the soft strumming of his guitar that it was easy to imagine that the singer might let those few spoken words be his message.
But there was a lot more to it.
With a nod to Tom Paine and a kiss for Walt Whitman, Springsteen reviewed the crisis and then called voters to be guided not by their fears but by the better angels of our nature. Lincoln spoke this way, Bobby Kennedy did, and so did Paul Wellstone. But, as this campaign closes, that rare mixture of politics and poetry is coming not from politicians but from a man who until Thursday had never appeared on the stage of a presidential campaign rally.
The response in Madison, and a few hours later in Columbus, Ohio, where the Kerry-Springsteen tour stopped next, was more than merely campaign-stop enthusiastic.
When the shouting stopped, the tens upon tens of thousands of people who filled the streets in front of him began to listen. Really listen.
Springsteen detailed the subjects that mattered to him: “the human principles of economic justice, healing the sick, health care, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, a living wage so folks don’t have to go out and break their backs and still not be able to make ends meet” and “the protection of the environment, a sane and responsible foreign policy, civil rights and the protection and safeguarding of our precious democracy here at home.”
Now, the crowd that stretched for block after block up a hill to the state Capitol began to settle. Something was being said here, and these people — who just moments before had been rocking along with Springsteen — were suddenly listening as the singer ran through his litany of progressive passions.
“I believe that John Kerry honors these ideals. He has lived their history over the past 50 years and formed an adult view of America and its people,” Springsteen told the voters of Wisconsin, a battleground state that could well tip the electoral-college balance of this year’s presidential contest. “He’s had the life experience; I think he understands that we as humans are not infallible and that, as Senator (John) Edwards said during the Democratic National Convention, that struggle and heartbreak will always be with us. That’s why ‘united we stand,’ ‘one nation, indivisible,’ aren’t just slogans. They need to remain guiding principles of our public lives.”
With autumn leaves drifting slowly from the trees that lined the street, Springsteen described the Democratic nominee for president in terms that made Kerry’s resume read a good deal more lyrically than it has during this ugly campaign of Swift Boat vet charges and FOX-TV sneer fests. “He’s shown us, starting as a young man, that by facing America’s hard truths, both the good and the bad, that’s where we find a deeper patriotism. That’s where we find a complete view of who we are. That’s where we find a more authentic experience as citizens, and that’s where we find the power that is embedded only in truth to make our world a better and safer place.”
Springsteen paused and then invoked the name of Wellstone, the late Minnesota senator who is an iconic figure among progressives in the neighboring state of Wisconsin.
“Paul Wellstone,” the singer repeated, as the tension broke and the crowd began cheering. “He said the future is for the passionate and those who are willing to fight and work hard for it. Well, the future is now. And it’s time to let your passions loose.” Now, the applause was swelling. “Let’s roll up our sleeves,” Springsteen shouted above the roar of approval. “That’s why I’m here today — to stand alongside Senator Kerry and to tell you that the country we carry in our hearts is waiting, and together we can move America towards her deepest ideals.”
Springsteen pulled his black guitar up and, referencing the musical instruments preferred by former President Bill Clinton and Kerry, said, “Besides, we had a sax player in the house. We need a guitar player in the White House.” As the crowd roared its approval once more, the singer quietly continued, “Alright, this for John. This is for you, John.” Then he launched into “No Surrender,” a song that has been adopted as the Kerry campaign’s anthem. Stripped down and slowed down, the song’s words resonated even more clearly with crowd, especially the line, “I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies.”
When Springsteen finished, he introduced Kerry, who bounded to the stage and announced, “I may be running for president of the United States, but we all know who the boss is.”
Energized by the crowd and the company on stage, Kerry delivered a muscular, well-received address. And, surely, the throngs belonged as much or more to him as they did to Springsteen. Yet, when the day was done, it was the singer, not the candidate, who had delivered the most meaningful political address.
There are often debates about the extent to which serious attention should be granted to the political musings of singers, actors and other celebrities. The quality and character of Springsteen’s addresses in Madison and Columbus on Thursday, and the responses to them, suggests that this issue may finally be settled. In a year when so many meaningless words have been spilled along the campaign trail, Bruce Springsteen is saying something that matters.