Friday, June 24, 2011

A Lesson in Politics from the Big Man

By Richard A. Lee

I never had a chance to meet Clarence Clemons while I was a music critic for The Aquarian Weekly in the early 1980s, but the time I spent covering rock’n’roll in New Jersey coincided with the few years that Clarence owned a club in Red Bank called Big Man’s West.

I spent several memorable nights at the club. I saw Clarence perform with his own band, the Red Bank Rockers; I was in the audience when Bruce Springsteen jumped onstage for an impromptu set with Dave Edmonds, and I was there with a small group of about 25 hearty souls who braved bad weather because we were told that night’s performer – a young man from Sayreville named John Bongiovi – might someday make it big.

Although my career took a different path after I left the world of music journalism, I remained a fan of Springsteen and the E Street Band. Like so many others, I was saddened by the news of Clemons’ passing, but at the same time, it has been comforting and somewhat inspiring to hear the words of those who knew him well – as well as those who simply were his fans – as they expressed their love and fondness for the Big Man.

These are not sentiments I hear often in my current occupation, where the subjects of my writing are government, politics and the media.

But that’s quite understandable. After all, who is more likely to generate affection from the public? A man who has been a popular entertainer for some four decades or a politician who casts votes on taxes, program cuts, and other volatile issues?

Perhaps, this explains the success of some of today’s most popular politicians. Individuals such as Sarah Palin and Chris Christie may not consider themselves entertainers, but they clearly are entertaining. In the 21st Century, success in politics has become as much about personality as it is about one’s ability to govern. “In essence, the candidate is the message,” Republican strategist Karl Rove said about the Palin team’s approach in a New York magazine article.

Personality tells us a lot about a person, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate how effectively one performs his or her job – whether that job is running a government or playing the saxophone. In Clemons’ case, he had both the talent and the personality. With image often overshadowing substance in campaigns and elections, let’s hope that we can find leaders whose personalities and talents blend as smoothly as the notes that emanated from the Big Man’s tenor saxophone for so many years.

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Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter.