The Boss offers Kerry blue-collar support

Backing from the entertainment industry has sometimes been a mixed blessing for the Democrats, but Bruce Springsteen's Vote for Change presents a message in the terms of the eternal America, Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent US

In a close-run election, could a bunch of music stars be the difference between victory and defeat for John Kerry? Just possibly, if the bunch goes under the collective name of Vote for Change, and one of the rock stars in question is a certain Bruce Springsteen.

This week, in what is surely the most ambitious venture of its kind, almost two dozen artists, led by Springsteen, presented plans for multi-state tours at the very height of the election season to garner support for the Democrats and whip up opposition to President George Bush.

There have have been many past efforts by entertainers to influence US presidential elections, but few with the star wattage of this one, and none, surely as focused and carefully organised. In the first week of October, as the political campaign proper moves into top gear, 16 acts, grouped in to six separate shows, will perform in 10 states.

And not just any states. This itinerary will follow the candidates through the election's most crucial battlefields: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin, culminating in Florida, the most crucial of them all. On the night of Friday, 8 October, there will be simultaneous Vote for Change shows in Miami, Tampa Bay, Orlando and three other cities.

The list of participants in the tour is impressive: among them REM, one of the biggest bands of the early 1990s, the songwriter and singer Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, and the Dixie Chicks - whose lead singer Natalie Maines earned damnation from many country and western fans when she said on the eve of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that she was ashamed that George Bush came from Texas.

But, as every one of these luminaries would admit, it is the Boss who makes the difference. This week he has been everywhere, giving an interview to The Los Angeles Times, and appearing on Ted Koppel's Nightline, the peak of serious late-night talk shows. Most striking of all was an article on the op-ed page of The New York Times, no self-serving piece of promotional puff, but a political disquisition by Springsteen, "a writer and performer", as the Times quaintly described him.

To the casual observer, the anti-Bush sally might seem odd. After all, did not the Reagan campaign seek to co-opt his mega-hit Born in the USA as an anthem during the 1984 election campaign? And does not Springsteen - hard-edged blue-collar rocker - seem at first glance an archetypal "Reagan Democrat" of that era, of the breed that defected from its natural party in protest at its soggy liberalism?

Look a little closer, however, and it makes perfect sense. Born in the USA is no sugary paeon to the Land of the Free, but the bitter outburst of a Vietnam War veteran forgotten by an ungrateful country. Two decades later, another Springsteen hit, No Surrender, became the anthem of the Democratic Convention in Boston that nominated Mr Kerry last month.

Its lyrics evoked the candidate's own service in Vietnam, and the new macho image to which his party aspires, as Democrats seek to match Mr Bush's national security credentials: "Once we made a promise we swore we'd always remember/ No retreat, baby, no surrender/ Blood brothers in a stormy night/ With a vow to defend/ No retreat, baby, no surrender."

That "Hollywood" - in its shorthand sense of the entertainment industry - tends to favour Democrats is nothing new. For the Democrats, Hollywood is an inexhaustible fount of political funds, but Republicans use their opponents' cosying with the glittering, loose-living movie set to underscore their argument that the Democrats are unreconstructed, celebrity-obsessed liberals, who have lost touch with the core values of ordinary Americans.

Under Bill Clinton, the love affair reached an earlier apogee, only to cool somewhat in 2000 when the Democratic standard bearers were Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, both outspoken critics of the surge in sex and violence in movies and pop lyrics. In this unprecedentedly intense election year however, the bonds are tighter than ever.

Yes there are conservatives in Hollywood (Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Charlton Heston to name but three), but this year actors, writers and directors have given eight times more money to Mr Kerry than to the President.

And in 2004, the support has been on-screen as well as off-screen. Michael Moore's savagely anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 is the top grossing documentary in recent movie history; the current remake of The Manchurian Candidate features a manipulative and evil corporation that bears a more than passing resemblance to Halliburton of Dick Cheney fame.

All of this feeds the Republican spin machine - as do over-the-top occasions such as last month's Kerry $7.5m (£4.1m) entertainment industry fund- raiser in New York, and the spectacle of Whoopi Goldberg declaiming some coarse sexual word-plays on Bush's name, and other performers lining up to flay the President as a killer and a "cheap thug".

Right on cue, up chimes a Bush campaign spokesman to charge that Mr Kerry's tolerance of the occasion only proved his lack of leadership, and "how far he is from mainstream America". But the Springsteen venture is different, not least because the Boss is the very epitome of a certain mainstream America, and has rarely been identified with partisan politics.

He did join forces again after 11 September with the E Street Band of his glory days to produce his widely-praised album The Rising, with its signature track "My City of Ruins", seen as a personal hymn to the devastated New York. At bottom, however, this native of the thoroughly mainstream, utterly unglamorous state of New Jersey conjures up a pre-existing eternal America, of disillusioned old soldiers and down at heel bars, of construction sites and good ol' boys without helmets belting down interstates on their motorbikes. It is an earthy down-home America that the President's master strategist Karl Rove might reasonably scour for untapped Bush votes.

Nor will the tour be (or at least is is not planned to be) a frontal assault on Mr Bush, á la Whoopi Goldberg. Participants intend to be, in Springsteen's words, to be "Bush questioners, not Bush bashers". The tone, right now at least, is more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger.

As Boyd Tinsley, a member of the Dave Matthews Band, told The Los Angeles Times this week, "I don't hate Bush. I think George Bush, like me, loves America. He's doing what he's doing because he loves America. I disagree with him."

Springsteen set out his views in most detail in his New York Times piece, and he sums up the case against this President in the most mainstream fashion. "Like many others in the aftermath of 9/11, I felt the country's unity," he wrote. "I supported the decision to enter Afghanistan and I hoped that the seriousness of the times would bring forth strength, humility and wisdom in our leaders."

Instead, "we dived headlong into an unneccessary war in Iraq, we ran record deficits, we granted tax cuts to the richest 1 per cent (corporate bigwigs, well-to-do guitar players), increasing the division of wealth that threatens to destroy our social contract with one another."

But however well-worded, however powerfully delivered on stage, will the Springsteen critique make a difference? In direct terms, probably not. Undoubtedly the Boss has plenty of Republican fans, but most people are no more inclined to be influenced in their voting intentions by pop stars than by famous actors, baseball players, retired military officers or even ex-presidents. The indirect impact, however, may be considerable.

At the very least, a Springsteen tour, even one that preaches mainly to the already converted, guarantees publicity for the Democrats. Given that one recent 10-day tour by the Boss netted $38m, it will be also a powerful source of funds, even though the money cannot go to the Kerry campaign, which is already committed to the $75m spending ceiling between convention and election day allowed by federal campaign finance rules.

But the party will benefit hugely., the arch-liberal online group that has already produced a host of generic anti-Bush ads, is closely involved in organising the tour. Proceeds from the concerts - 34 have already been announced - will go to America Coming Together (ACT), another pro-Democrat group which is seeking to register new Democrat-leaning voters and get them to the polls on 2 November. Above all, the tour can only raise the profile of the election, underscoring the Democrats' contention that this time the race is so close, and the stakes are so high that no one can afford not to vote.

It is a sobering thought that for all the hullabaloo surrounding US elections, turnout rarely exceeds 55 per cent, the lowest average of any advanced democracy. If Springsteen, his own band of bothers and sisters in Vote for Change, and ACT have their way, this time enough Democrat-sympathisers will become Democrat voters to evict Mr Bush from the White House.