Shared values, critical life moments with Bruce Springsteen

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, DECEMBER 23, 2018

After 18 months, “Springsteen on Broadway” has closed and is available on Netflix. The one-man, two-hour show, with appearances by Patti Scialfa on two songs, who is also his Bruce Springsteen’s wife, is a biography of his music. Springsteen recounts the highlights of his childhood and early adulthood and the effect it had on his music.

I saw “Springsteen on Broadway” a year ago and have seen him and the E Street Band in concert at least eight times since 2009. I liked his music from first hearing “Born to Run” in 1975, bought his five-record album in the 1980s but did not make time to study his songs until much later. In the past 10 years, reading and listening to Springsteen has been one of the pleasures of my semiretirement.

A benefit of YouTube is that footage of early Springsteen concerts and videos makes it easy to see how Springsteen as a person and songwriter has changed over the decades. The E Street Band’s 2009 Super Bowl performance of “Working on A Dream” is three decades of growth away from his early performances of his classic “Badlands.”

Springsteen is two years older than I am, and we share several experiences: Catholic grade schools, small declining hometowns an hour away from East Coast big cities where we really wanted to be, hated grade school, keen memories of our hometowns, dealing with the Vietnam era and cheerful, optimistic mothers. We also had strong fathers but who were very different. Unlike Bruce, I never saw my father drunk in the kitchen or at a bar and never saw a mean streak of depression. My father, who died when I was in graduate school, was my idol whom I loved to be with. My favorite words from my childhood were “we have a project to do.” Either way, as Springsteen says, for most men, “fathers stand like beacons” to whom we always measure ourselves.

Springsteen’s being the only boy in a family of three, compared with my being one of five boys and three girls, must have given Springsteen more individual attention than I received. My childhood was too chaotic to practice a music instrument, but I learned to get along with different ages and personalities. His hero was Elvis Presley; my heroes were John F. Kennedy and Roberto Clemente.
Viewing “Springsteen on Broadway” allowed me to compare his experiences and youthful ideas with mine. An overarching mystery we have in common is a focus on the American Dream, patriotism and what it means to be brought up in America during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era. We both escaped the draft by good fortune, had friends killed in Vietnam and were confused about how our leaders could let the war go on long after we knew it was unnecessary and wrong.

We also have a deep connection to our hometowns. We were both “Born to Run,” but he ran farther and has not stayed away so long. I was ready to leave my hometown not because of rejection or lack of opportunity but because of curiosity about other places. Like Springsteen, I remember every crack in the sidewalks and every big tree where we used to play. Springsteen now lives 10 minutes from his hometown, and I have never resided again in mine since leaving high school nearly 50 years ago. My memories are as alive and precious, however. In his Broadway show, Springsteen tells of recently returning to his neighborhood only to see that the tree in front of his house had been cut down by the city. His intimal sadness did not last long when he realized that the tree was so great and its impact so strong that it will never be gone.

Springsteen articulated a yearning, a searching for “the promised land of hopes and dreams” that I recognize. He jokes about singing about “Thunder Road” and “Racing in the Streets” while not even knowing how to drive when he was 21. I worked at a new car dealer (my dad was the general manager) and enjoyed the envy of “the greasers” in my high school because one of them saw me driving a Pontiac GTO one time.

While I am no Bruce Springsteen, he helped me understand my academic and philosophical interests. He says he wanted to celebrate his country, to criticize it in order to understand and to share that understanding with others. Of all the creative artists I have read about, Springsteen explains the creative urge the best: When you are there, you want to stay there; when you aren’t there, you are afraid you won’t return there. Springsteen says it is that “being afraid that you won’t return” that makes writers and artists selfish with their time and thoughts and hard to get along with.

Unlike the stereotype of a rock star, Springsteen is quite conventional in his lifestyle and personal relationships. He has apparently lived drug-free and been loyal to his family and to his band. Perhaps the major surprise about him is his recognition of the deep and continuing influence of his Catholic upbringing on his life and music. Surprisingly, Springsteen ends both his biography and his Broadway show with the “Our Father.”

Springsteen helped me understand our times and my life. He helped me recognize that I believe in “the promised land” and in “the land of hopes and dreams.”

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

The U.S. Senate is in Deep Trouble

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, December 16, 2018

Former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri who served in the U.S. Senate from 1976-1995, joined 43 of his former Senate colleagues in writing an op ed in the Washington Post titled “The Senate Must Defend Democracy.”
This bipartisan group of former senators wrote, “It is our shared view that we are entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, and our governing institutions and our national security.”

These are not your run-of-the-mill political hacks. These are accomplished, distinguished public officials with years of Senate and political experience. Danforth, an ordained Episcopalian minister and lawyer, was Missouri’s attorney general, and, after he left the Senate, ambassador to the United Nations. He and Christopher “Kit” Bond, a former senator and governor, led the resurgence of the Republican Party in Missouri in the 1970s. All citizens should listen when Danforth speaks. To repeat: We have serious challenges to the rule of law.

Two retiring senators have similar concerns about the performance of the Senate. Retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has served since 1977, proclaimed in his farewell address that the Senate is “in crisis.”
“The committee process lies in shambles. Regular order is a relic of the past. And compromise — once the guiding credo of this great institution — is now synonymous with surrender.”

Outgoing Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who has served since 2007, directed blame at the Senate’s practice of voting on bills that no one has seen or read except the Senate majority leader’s staff. McCaskill believes the Senate has failed to lead because too many senators are afraid of adverse political consequences. She says the Senate needs to step back and take a good hard look at its failures.

Although President Donald Trump is the center of the current crisis, he is not the only one to blame. It is more likely that he rode the wave of institutional irresponsibility and hyper-partisanship. Trump’s willingness to ignore governing protocol and to even argue one-on-one with the chief justice of the Supreme Court is troubling.

With the campaign process in chaos, more like a street auction than a vehicle for public deliberation, with the media mostly generating the crisis of the day, with higher education focused on expanding money-making missions rather than teaching critical thinking, there are few options for leadership.

The Senate might be the last place — and it looks ineffective.
In a sentence, the major problem with the Senate is that it has become more like the House of Representatives. It is too partisan, too top-down driven, too campaign focused, too short-term focused, too individualistic, too narrow, too inexperienced and too petty.

Throughout our nation’s history, the Senate has been “the greatest deliberate body in the world.” If it fails, we are in great jeopardy. The group of 44 former senators are pleading with present and future senators to ensure democracy by not allowing “partisanship and self-interest to replace the national interest.”

Rexford G. Tugwell, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust, proposed that former high political officials be formally included in the political process. In his “Model for a New Constitution” (1970), Tugwell proposed that rather then direct election of U.S. senators by the voters in the 50 states, the Senate should comprise former presidents, court judges and justices, and administrative officials who are politically independent with governing experience.

The group of 44 former senators should expand their membership and redouble their efforts to protect democracy and our governing institutions. Danforth had experience with such a quasi-political body when he led the Republican Leadership Council, which included many moderate former senators and governors. This time it needs to be bipartisan and more actively engaged with the media and political groups.

Suppose a bipartisan group of 100 former senators and governors existed today and routinely issued “policy guidance” statements (not more than five pages).
Since 2017, they might have issued statements about (1) candidates releasing their tax returns, (2) the importance of having knowledgeable people on the White House staff, (3) guaranteeing voting rights, (4) conducting an orderly Senate confirmation process, (5) comprehensive immigration reform, (6) maintaining fiscal responsibility, (7) international global climate change, (8) reducing mass violence, (9) reducing opioid deaths, (10) transportation and water system infrastructure for the next 25 years.

A group of 100 experienced officials does not need to solve these problems.
They need to focus attention on critical issues and push them to the media and onto to the public agenda. They need to tell the president and the Congress to get to work and make democracy work.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Bush’s passing is end of an era with mixed results

David Webber, Columbia Missourian, December 9, 2018

George H.W. Bush’s death marks the end of several eras. It is certainly the end of the Greatest Generation’s leadership and perhaps the end of bipartisanship in the foreseeable future.

It may also be the end of well-prepared presidential candidates. Politics is more chaotic now, and we Americans have become too distracted, too distrusting and too disinterested to nurture politicians into potential statesman. Regrettably, in the instant internet age, we seem more willingly to pick shiny untested candidates rather than well-seasoned career politicians who worked their way up the political and governmental ladder. On the other hand, the field of potential presidents is much wider than it used to be when the “establishment” dominated politics.

I had my first brush with Bush when he spoke to an MU political science class during the 1988 primary season that I had the good fortunate to attend. I witnessed in person the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton, and therefore Bush’s retirement from the presidency, on Jan. 20, 1993.

By chance, I was in Washington, D.C., when Bush died Nov. 30. I paid my respects while Bush lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. Bush was almost a constant newsmaker from 1970s until his death. Overall, I find him rather perplexing both personally and politically.

Because of a patrician background that combined wealth with a call to genuine public service, he seems to have more in common with Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy than he does Bill Clinton, Donald Trump or even his sons.

Part of it is the sense of patriotic service, but it also includes a willingness to compromise, a dignity, a cheerfulness, a public grace. In that light, its hard to understand how he selected an inexperienced Sen. Dan Quayle for his vice presidential running mate or an under-qualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.

While Bush always objected to the term “dynasty,” there is no other term for a family where a senator begets a president who begets another president, and another governor who begets a fledging political activist. Americans seem to recognize a Kennedy Dynasty but under-appreciated a more effective Bush Dynasty.

By all accounts Bush was of outstanding character, up there with Abe Lincoln, a sincere and principled person. But somehow, he was often thought of being “too nice” to be president. 

This being too nice may have dictated some compensating actions, such as the effective dog-whistle Willie Horton ad and caricaturing his opponent Michael Dukakis that helped him win the 1988 election. But it may have caused him to be overly tough with his utterance “read my lips, no new taxes” that contributed to his 1992.

Bush most likely would have been re-elected in 1992 had it not been for independent candidate Ross Perot attracting 19 percent of the vote, most of which would have gone to Bush. While the electoral college is deservedly criticized for giving us minority presidents, our voting system works against third-party candidates who can only be spoilers. It’s a pity that Bush’s defeat did not lead to election reform.

His strength was international relations where he led a coalition to restrain Iraq from invading Kuwait in 1990. While some criticize him for not going into Baghdad, it was exemplary that once our goal of turning back Iraqi forces was accomplished, American troops were brought home.

While Bush presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the majority of the credit belongs to the Reagan Administration, which he was part of.

Bush had at least three major domestic successes, all with a Democratic Congress, that may not have happened under any other Republican president.

First, he agreed to and signed the Clean Air Act of 1990, the last major environmental statute, largely because of his personal experience summering in Maine all of his life and seeing the effects of acid rain.

Second, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, with which he had experience on a deregulatory task force in the Reagan administration.

Third, Bush compromised on a five-year budget plan that included “revenue enhancements” and that was widely viewed as violation of his “read my lips, no new taxes” proclamation. Ironically, this long-term budget agreement is considered to have contributed significantly to the economic expansion of the 1990s.

Additionally, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated under Brush’s watch but not ratified by the Senate until the Clinton administration. That’s quite a list of accomplishments for a president without his party in the majority.

Bush was the bridge from Watergate to the resurgence of the Republican Party in 1980 and from the low partisanship Reagan administration to the rise of the hyper-partisan Newt Gingrich-led Republican House that was still a factor in the first two years of Trump.

Unfortunately, the Bush campaign’s use of the Willie Horton ad in 1988, the nastiness of both of his presidential campaigns, and the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings cast a shadow on Bush’s legacy.

In the end, his hope for a “kinder, gentler nation” has not materialized. Maybe a president can only do so much