Stiehm: Bruce and Barack — Cool dudes on the state of the Nation
Who would you rather hang with, Bruce Springsteen or Barack Obama? Luckily, you don’t have to choose, because Bruce and Barack have a bestselling book, “Renegades,” out, based on podcast conversations. Maybe it was under your Christmas tree.
Could that be any cooler-than-thou? Bruce and Barack, as I’ll call them, have a bro ease with each other. One sweet moment is when Springsteen asks how he should address Obama.
“Barack, man. Come on, dude.”
And so, they delved into the soul of this country. The promised land is the motif of Bruce’s bittersweet song, Barack’s recent memoir. They are believers, seekers, fellow travelers in this land.
Springsteen tells Obama, “You gave me something that I’ve never been able to give myself.” Playing campaign rallies, he enjoyed more diversity in audiences than at his concerts over the years.
The bard of New Jersey is more direct than the 44th president. “These are treacherous times with much at stake,” Springsteen says. “With everything at stake.”
First up, they’re concerned with a polarized America. Obama witnessed this splitting at the seams over his presidency’s arc. It began with euphoria in Chicago’s Grant Park. It ended in tears for most voters, who wanted Hillary Clinton and got Donald Trump instead.
Trump’s culmination of a violent mob storming the Capitol on Jan. 6: Let’s not go there today. Except it would have been nice if Obama had fired his FBI director, Republican James Comey, for tripping up Clinton twice in the crucial run-up to the 2016 election — for no good reason. Obama never played tough with Comey, Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell or anybody. Too cool.
Obama is a solo artist of elegant words. He says lightly, “I’ve been known to sing.” Remember, he broke into “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for nine murdered Black churchgoers in South Carolina. A moment with meaning, yet racial violence was rising like a river.
Bruce and Barack identify as outsiders to the system, folks, as the wealthiest rock star in the world — his songbook sold for $550 million — and the rock star of the political world.
I know their words well, the working-class anger Springsteen summons so hauntingly and, in the next number, the sheer exuberance of being alive. In recent songs, “Ghosts” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” he’s more elegiac than ever before.
Oh, and we danced to Bruce in concert in Cleveland (he and the E Street Band played “Youngstown”), Philadelphia and Washington.
Even before Obama had the audacity to start his run for president from the Illinois State House, where Abraham Lincoln still walks the halls, I kept an eye on his easy elan and way with words. That great gift never failed him as he raised politics to another level of cool performance art.
One difference is crystal clear from reading their memoirs. In “Born to Run,” Springsteen writes from the heart on every page, as if he’s pouring himself into a song or a love letter.
Obama’s tome, “A Promised Land,” is cerebral, one step removed from the reader. Barack left a lot out; I know from living here. And he’s cool in the other sense of the word, writing from his head. His beam lights up a full room, but he’d rather be at home writing on his yellow legal pad.
Have I got news for you. Another poet from New Jersey was paired with a president he loved. This is not the first time.
Musically, Springsteen is compared to complex Bob Dylan, but he rhymes more with Walt Whitman, who celebrated democracy, the body electric and the deepest feelings in American verse. The poet witnessed the Civil War in Washington, where he visited wounded Union soldiers and worked as a government copyist.
Whitman had hat in hand every time President Lincoln’s carriage passed by. “I love the president personally,” he told friends.
Then came the cruel April night the Civil War president was murdered in a theater, while laughing at a comedy. Washington wept, especially Black freed people. Grieving Whitman wrote his beautiful elegy about a sprig of lilac as symbol of loss.
Springsteen and Obama, blessed as they are, won’t repeat that history.
Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.