You are here

Back to top

Renegades: Born in the USA, by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen


This week, I’m just kicking back and chilling with this coffee table book published last year featuring two magnificent Americans: Renegades: Born in the USA, by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. The intelligence and decency woven throughout their conversations is just so refreshing after surviving four years of Trump and the continuing daily barrage of the inane, hateful and utter dishonesty spouted daily by rightwing politicians and media. It’s just two guys who can express their love of country while also recognizing its faults and challenges; two guys who are proud of their work while also being able to express their doubts, and to acknowledge how much of their success was built on the support of others; two guys who think deeply and honestly about life.

Two guys you wish you could sit and have a beer with.

I’ve never been much of a podcast listener or video watcher, so I never listened to the original Renegades: Born in the USA podcast on Spotify. Perhaps you did. If so, much of the material in this book will be familiar to you. Even so, the book adds the pleasure of reading, rereading and savoring, as well as additional material and glorious photos of both Obama and Springsteen at all ages.

Their attitudes about their accomplishments and fame are expressed in the first chapter:

President Obama: If a musician is looking for a way to channel and work through pain, demons, personal questions, so is a politician getting into public life.

Bruce Springsteen: But you gotta have two things going, which is very difficult. One, you’ve got to have the egotism—

President Obama: The megalomania—

Bruce Springsteen: The megalomania to believe that you have a voice that is worth being heard by the whole world. Yet on the other hand, you’ve got to have the tremendous empathy for other people.

President Obama: It’s a hard trick to pull off. You start with ego, but then at some point you become a vessel for people’s hopes and dreams. You just become a conduit.

The book is filled with personal reflections about their childhoods, their absent fathers, their marriages, their experiences of being a father. But always, the personal is mixed with the political. Springsteen recalls the racism in the small New Jersey town where he grew up, the Newark riots in the 1960s which spread to his town of Freehold, and to the Jersey Shore town of Asbury Park, where Springsteen first found fame. Photos in this section include very evocative shots of a group of mostly young Black women, hands on hips, staring at the armed white National Guardsmen patrolling the streets, and of the smoking wreckage in the street outside the Milk Bar in Asbury Park in 1970. Asbury Park businesses had traditionally employed Blacks as part of the summer beach season, but more and more the jobs were given to whites instead, leading to the outbreak of frustrated rage.

Here is a snippet of their discussion of masculinity:

President Obama: And I talk a lot with my male friends, but, after about an hour, I kind of run out of stuff and then we’ll turn on a ball game or we’ll play a ball game, so there is some activity. But the sort of sustained ability to share and connect—we don’t teach our boys to do that.

Bruce Springsteen: From when I was a young man, I lived with a man who suffered from that loss of status and I saw it every single day. It was all tied to lack of work, inconsistency working, and I just watched the low self-esteem. That was part of my daily life living with my father. It taught me one thing: work is essential. That’s why if we can’t get people working in this country, we’re going to have an awfully hard time.

President Obama:  It is. It is central to how people define themselves in the sense of self-worth.

And I think about young men coming up behind me. For all the changes that happened in America, when it comes to “What does it mean to be a man?” I still see that same confusion, and the same limited measures of manliness today, as I had back then. And that’s true, whether you’re talking about African American boys or white boys. They don’t have rituals, road maps, and initiation rites into a clear sense of a male strength and energy that is positive as opposed to just dominating.

I talk to my daughters’ friends about boys growing up, and much of the popular culture tells them that the only clear, defining thing about being a man, about being masculine, is excelling in sports and sexual conquest—

Bruce Springsteen: And violence.

President Obama: And violence. Those are the three things. Violence, if it’s healthy at least, gets subsumed into sports. Later, you add to that definition: making money. How much money can you make?

The discussion continues, as they examine how in their lives they have sometimes perpetuated these attitudes (Springsteen: “we sort of ended up being just sixties versions of our dads, carrying all the same sexism”) and how they’ve struggled to overcome it. Just the sort of conversation I imagine Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan having in the halls of Congress.

I don’t know. It’s hard to distill the pleasure of this book into a review. They both are so honest, intelligent, informed, thoughtful and open. They display decency, goodness, empathy, intellectual curiosity. They display humanity. The pleasure they have in each other’s friendship is very evident. It certainly made me long for a better politics, and a better social conversation, and made me feel how oh so very tired I am sometimes of the corrosive politics of the day.

The book has great photos, as well as Springsteen lyrics and Obama speeches, sometimes presented as marked-up edits of the original texts, as in Obama’s speech in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery March. Lots of other nostalgic ephemera as well, such as the playlists of In Performance At the White House series in 2009, with performances by Stevie Wonder, India Arie, Gloria Estefan, Lin Manuel Miranda, Los Lobos, and more.

Oh, what a time it was. A time of hope, of belief in the possibilities of a better future. The backlash to those times, so frustrating during the Obama presidency, and so perilously toxic in its aftermath, is a burden of grief I carry around every day. But also a source of strength and continuing hope. Yes, We Still Can, if only we do the work.

I highly recommend giving yourself the tonic of this book, and/or of the podcasts that it draws on.