R.C. “Tiny” Dawson is the first one lined up at the center field gate of Nationals Park on Friday night. He’s a towering man, a retired firefighter from Richmond who paid $98 to sit in Section 109 and sing along to the songs of Bruce Springsteen.
Joining Dawson in that adoring choir of 38,000: a swell of lawmakers, lobbyists, consultants and media folk, their voices providing a subliminal psychic dissonance exclusive to Springsteen’s Washington gigs. Ours is the only city on Earth where you can hear the most mythologized musician of his time sing about America’s powerless to America’s powerful. And that’s sorta weird, right?
Put your sacrilegious question to Washington’s wonks, and you’ll hear eyes roll over the phone. Then you’ll hear cascades of breathless praise for the Boss, followed by a tiny shard of logic that effortlessly slices your Gordian knot: People adore Springsteen, and politicians are people.
And what’s your beef with the Boss, anyway? Whether he’s touring the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, the Garden State or olde Europe, the man gets up there for three-plus hours and sweats his soul. He could be gouging us, but he keeps ticket prices fair, plus he looks ah-may-zing at 62 and still totally rocks, so what’s the problem, buddy? BRUUUUUCE!
Hearing adulation like this can be intoxicating. Or terrifying. But it all speaks to the Herculean responsibilities we’ve heaped on poor Bruce in the past decade. Whenever a new Springsteen album lands, we expect it to embody our values, understand our struggles and illuminate our future. In other words, we expect Springsteen to do what we expect politicians to do, which is probably why so many politicians love Springsteen.
Hey, Mary Hager, executive producer of “Face the Nation,” you love Springsteen. You have lawmakers on the show all the time. Ever meet one who actually dislikes the Boss?
“Not anyone who’s willing to go on the record,” she says.
Rocking out on high at the sold-out Nationals Park on Friday: Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), who are holding campaign fundraisers in the stadium’s luxury suites — boxes that regularly cost between $3,000 and $8,500 a pop.
These obviously aren’t the farmers and factory workers who populate Springsteen’s songbook. These are the officials elected to represent them. So do they relate to the little guy? Or do they relate to the charismatic millionaire onstage righteously sticking up for the little guy?
Listen to the lyrics. “They’re about community, they’re about faith, they’re about work — values that folks in each party certainly use when they’re talking to voters,” says Doug Heye, deputy chief of staff for communications for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
President Obama may have captured it best in a 2008 campaign-trail zinger: “The reason I’m running for president is because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen.”
After the president wrapped up his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last week, Springsteen’s recent single “We Take Care of Our Own” elbowed its way out of the speakers. (According to Billboard, digital sales of the song jumped 409 percent afterward.) Last weekend, more than 15 staffers from the Obama campaign went to hear Springsteen growl the song during his two-night stand at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. “Was an amazing show,” deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter writes in an e-mail. “Went both nights.”
But Springsteen didn’t mention the president either night. He campaigned hard for Obama in 2008, but this election cycle, he’s sitting it out.
“I don’t write for one side of the street,” he said in February at a news conference in Paris. “But the Bush years were so horrific you could not just sit around. It was such a blatant disaster. I campaigned for Kerry and Obama, and I am glad I did. But normally I would prefer to stay on the sidelines. The artist is supposed to be the canary in the cage.”
David Wade, chief of staff for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), helped spring the bird from the cage in 2004 during Kerry’s run for the White House. Wade remembers campaign rallies in Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin where Springsteen’s performances juiced up the crowds and the candidate. (The senator had to skip Friday’s concert for a Saturday morning funeral, but Wade says Kerry prefers seeing the Boss in Boston, anyway. “It’s not as much of the D.C. scene.”)
Now Springsteen shows are crawling with politicians. “It kind of became cool in Democratic circles to be a Springsteen guy,” Luke Russert of NBC News says. “They can appear cool, they can appear youthful . . . like they’re in tune with all classes.”
That cool extends into the media-verse, too. “Personally, it’s always been [Springsteen’s] message about the space between the American dream and the American reality,” says Russert, who’s sitting in Section 116 on Friday. “I think for journalists, there’s an appeal there. You have guys like David Brooks, Ron Brownstein and Andrea Mitchell all citing their love of Bruce.”
In a June New York Times column, Brooks wrote about a flight he booked to Europe to tail the E Street Band around Spain and France. Once there, he was puzzled by the maniac fervor of Springsteen’s Euro fans — “Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?” — but concluded that they connected with Springsteen’s faraway New Jersey the way a reader would connect with the setting of their favorite novel. In closing, the columnist advised politicians to take a cue from the Boss and keep it real: “Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition.”
Okay, sure. But Brooks’s takeaway is emblematic of the weird and impossible roles we’ve assigned Springsteen. He speaks for Americans but especially himself and, most important, me. When Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey whose Springsteen superfandom was recently chronicled in the Atlantic, heard “We Take Care of Our Own” at Newark’s Prudential Center in May, was it the same “We Take Care of Our Own” that Kerry heard at Fenway Park in August?
When Springsteen spelunks that chasm between the American reality and the American dream, he’s venturing into the gap where politicians wage war. They promise voters they’ll seal it. They try to build suspension bridges across it. They want to give it a tax cut, or universal health care, or maybe they’ll just filibuster so we can all live in it forever.
So Springsteen tells Washington what it wants to hear.
“Equality, fairness, helping out your fellow man . . . there’s an awful lot of that in Bruce’s music. It’s a sentiment that appeals to the better angels in all of us,” says Dick Keil, a communications consultant at the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies who has tickets on the field.
Then Springsteen tells Washington what it doesn’t want to hear.
“He also says a lot more about the limits of the American dream than most politicians are willing to,” says fellow ticket-holder Jim Jordan, a colleague of Keil’s at Purple Strategies who also founded the Thunder Road Group, a PR firm named after a Springsteen tune. “It’s a lot easier to talk about American exceptionalism than the built-in limits of our dreams.”
Springsteen strides onto that center field stage Friday night and, within a few songs, looks as if he’s just emerged from a carwash. As the sweat drizzles, endorphins spill across the stands, across the aisle. Fans reach to paw at his sopping limbs. One hands him a pizza box containing a jumbo slice. Pepperoni. He takes a bite.
The good times are still gushing at 11 p.m. — it’s not over yet — and without a word about the election, anyone can hear the Springsteen they want to hear.