Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reagan at 100: Listen to the Music

As anyone who has read this blog would know or could guess, Ronald Reagan has never been one of my favorite presidents.  My first vote for president was cast in 1980, and it wasn't for him.  (It wasn't for Jimmy Carter either, but for Republican Congressman John Anderson who ran as an independent.)  I cut my political opinion writing teeth at my college newspaper, penning pieces often critical of Reagan.

Today is Reagan's 100th birthday, and that has prompted lots of reconsiderations of the man and his presidency.  I concede that my opinion of both today is not as harsh as it was in the 1980s, though it is still predominantly negative.  And what I consider to be the relatively positive aspects of his administration are ones that most modern-day conservatives either deny or ignore.

But I was listening to Chris Matthews Friday night in his commentary on Reagan, and he had one eloquent line that I agree with whole-heartedly.  Reagan, he said, "heard our music even when it faded."  I think that captures beautifully why the memory of the man still resonates with so many Americans, even as the details of his actual record fade into myth.  He sang America's song, and many people loved him for it.

That same line, however, also captures for me what was so lacking in the man and his presidency.  As an unabashed and unashamed Bruce Springsteen fanatic, I cannot hear the words "Reagan" and "music" without thinking of the infamous Reagan misuse of Springsteen's music during the 1984 campaign.  Springsteen had released the "Born in the U.S.A" album, the one that would launch him into rock superstardom, in June.  That fall Reagan tried to appropriate Springsteen for his campaign.    While campaigning in New Jersey, Reagan said:

America's future rests in a a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire:  New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen.

Now, I realize that line was written for Reagan and not something he came up with on his own.  He didn't know the first thing about Springsteen or his songs, other than that he was wildly popular at the time and perhaps that his new album had the American flag on the cover.

But that's my point.  Yes, Reagan heard the music.  He just didn't hear the words.  He didn't listen to the words, or care what they actually said.  The title song of that album, despite the misinterpretations of people like George Will (and legions of superficial fans), is not a proud, patriotic anthem.  It is not a song with a message of hope.  It is one of rage and despair.  The Vietnam veteran who narrates it ends with the line:

I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go

It's a song about someone who has been used up and cast aside by the country he was born in and loves.  It's a song, as so many of Springsteen's songs are, about someone whose dreams have been crushed, but who desperately still wants to believe. 

When told of Reagan's words, Springsteen said that while Reagan was not a bad man, he was afraid that "there are people whose dreams don't mean much to him."  Those are the people Springsteen was writing about.  Those are the people Mario Cuomo was talking about in his memorable 1984 convention speech: "There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."

There are things you miss when you only hear the music.  Truly great leaders need to know the words.  I admire Reagan's ability to hear our music.  But I want my leaders to listen to our lyrics, too.

1 comment:

  1. contemplating the 2012 presidential (and others) elections from wisconsin. with a vague recollection of the springsteen quote, "there are people whose dreams don't mean much to him" (a high-school classmate used it in an essay assignment), i swam through google and this was the closest i've come. do you recall the original source/publication? i love the quote, its balance. clearly relevant today.