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.”