How Ronald Reagan Ignited Bruce Springsteen's Politics
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Although his columns that year never made this clear, George Will was in fact an off-the-books adviser to the president’s reelection campaign. He seems to have come up with the idea of linking Springsteen with Reagan, but his genuine reaction to Springsteen’s concert was very much in keeping with the Reagan camp’s wider reelection strategy — don’t divide, co-opt. In attempting to seize many formerly liberal strains (even ones associated with the 1960s) and claim them for their own, Reagan’s advisers were piggybacking on a larger, hegemonic shift that had been building in U.S. society for the last year or two. In retrospect, historian Gil Troy has dubbed this shift “the Great Reconciliation,” which evidenced itself, in his words, “in the rise of the corporate activist, the consumer with a conscience, a society filled with people yearning to earn like Rockefellers, but occasionally live and sometimes even vote like Beatniks.”
Very much in this spirit, Will essentially announced in his column that rock was not rebellion. It was hard work. “Backstage,” he noted, “there hovers the odor of Ben-Gay: Springsteen is an athlete draining himself for every audience.” Moreover, he classified Springsteen’s brand of rock as a well-made American product, one that produced large profits and need not be shipped overseas (except on well-managed tours). “If all Americans,” Will continued, “—in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles — made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.”
Whether it was just a lucky accident due to Will’s vacation schedule or a more purposeful delay to help out the president’s cause, Will’s column on Springsteen finally appeared in print on September 13: Over a month after the concert he had attended; a week or so into the official presidential campaign; as “Dancing in the Dark” sank down to no. 50 on the Hot 100, “Cover Me” rose to no. 15, and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s ersatz E Street track “On the Dark Side” sat between the two genuine articles at no. 37. Less than a week later, Ronald Reagan made a scheduled stump appearance in Hammonton, N.J., a fairly rural community about an hour’s drive southwest of Freehold and half an hour northwest of Atlantic City. At this appearance, Reagan’s standard stump speech was altered as usual to include a local reference or two. In this case, the president noted, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in [the] songs of a man so many young Americans admire —New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
Over the weekend, between shows, Springsteen tried to make light of Reagan’s comments, but the impression persisted that Reaganism and Springsteenism were one and the same. When you heard Springsteen extol unrestricted individualism as he did in the Let freedom ring rap before “Born to Run,” or speak about the Revolutionary War monument in Freehold as he frequently did before “My Hometown,” you could easily understand why. Generationally specific as Springsteen’s remarks before “My Hometown” might be, they were still stylistically in tune with the similarly honorific remarks that the president had made in France in early June on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, not to mention the tribute to the Statue of Liberty with which he had concluded his speech in Dallas.
By the night of Springsteen’s next performance, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh on September 21, it was clear that the singer’s Reagan problem was not going away. That night, almost the first thing Springsteen mentioned to the audience was Reagan’s appropriation of his music. “Well, the President was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album,” Bruce concluded, “I don’t think he’s been listening to this one,” and he led the band into their customary rave-up on “Johnny 99.”