In 1965, as the Vietnam War escalated overseas amid civil unrest at home, abstract artists as accomplished as Philip Guston wondered whether they were doing the right thing. “What kind of man am I,” he wondered, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
Vietnam pushed him into a more direct commentary on the world—and a sudden shift toward representational, though often cartoonish, satirical attacks on hate groups and elected officials.
With devastating loss of life—nearly 60,000 U.S. casualties and an estimated three million soldier and civilian losses in Vietnam—the war produced some of the most significant ruptures in social and political life across the country and stoked a divisiveness that is still being felt today. Just as it changed America, the war changed art itself, shaking artists into activism and often into creating works quite different from any they had done before. The exhibition, organized by Melissa Ho, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art, is chock full of such examples.
When the tens of thousands of women marched down Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue last month for the 3rd annual Woman’s March, they were literally walking in the footsteps of fellow women who undertook that same protest trek 106 years ago in an attempt to gain the right to vote in American elections.
Today, all types of protesters use Pennsylvania Avenue for demonstrations . In fact, one day prior to the Women’s March, the long avenue which connects the White House and the Capitol Building, was filled with thousands of shouting, singing, sign-carrying anti-abortionists of all ages.
But they, like the women who followed them one day later, owe a debt of gratitude to the early 20th Century women who first recognized the power of a Pennsylvania Avenue protest when they staged the initial such march in the history of the nation’s capital.
In her book, Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote, author Rebecca Boggs Roberts narrates the heroic struggle of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party over gender voting parity, a fight which while occurring all over the nation, often focused in Washington.
Despite a call for voting rights first being issued at the noted Seneca Falls Women’s Conference in 1848, by 1913 women still were banned from the voting booths in all but six states. Early movement leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone had worked tirelessly for the cause, but their actions had produced little change on the part of the majority of American men who opposed allowing women to cast ballots.
While there was obviously long-held, ingrained sexism behind the contention that women just weren’t intellectually or physically capable of the “manly” tasks of voting and self-government, there were also several groups fueling the anti-suffrage cause. Those groups were worried that allowing women to vote would threaten their their special interests and restrict their businesses. Included in that contingent were the liquor lobby, corrupt party machines, and greedy industrialists who relied on child labor and unregulated working conditions for their huge profits.
But about a decade into a new century, a new breed of female activists, headed by Alice Paul, were now ready for more direct, aggressive actions to force the issue. Paul called for The Great Suffrage Parade and Pageant, which would be the first civil rights march in history to use the nation’s capital as background, to be unleashed on the day before Woodrow Wilson, who at the time was no supporter of the women’s movement, was to be sworn in as the 28th president of the United States.
The parade and pageant were disrupted by mobs of angry men who hurled drunken insults and began spitting upon, grabbing, and tripping the women, while police stood by doing nothing. Finally, U.S. military cavalry arrived, pushing the crowd back. “Their horses were driven into the throngs and whirled and wheeled until hooting men and women were forced to retreat,” The Washington Post reported the next day.
At least 100 people injured in the melee were taken to a local emergency hospital for treatment. On one level, by the end of the day, it appeared the protest had been a disaster. “Very little had gone according to plan,” Boggs Roberts writes. “Helen Keller, who was scheduled to speak, was so frightened by the crowds that she could not participate. Every woman in the hall (the end of the march) was some combination of filthy, battered, exhausted, unnerved, insulted, weepy, furious, and freezing”
But Paul and a few other leaders realized the debacle had actually been a great success for the cause. The enraged male brutality would be reported, creating more sympathy from the public for women’s voting rights..
Emboldened, groups of women now began picketing, standing by the White House with banners demanding a federal amendment. No one had ever done that before. Many of the protesters were thrown into filthy jails or workhouses on trumped up charges. Newspapers across the nation covered the story, which both created sympathy for the women and encouraged other women to emulate the D.C. actions.
The women arrested insisted upon trials, knowing they would bring even more national publicity. Meanwhile, disgruntled American men, following the lead of those in England, began calling the crusaders “suffragettes” as a way to distinguish the radical women from the better behaved “suffragists”. But the attempt to disparage the large portion of the movement backfired. “In a move that would be echoed by ‘Nasty Women’ over a century later, the members of the WSPU (radical Women’s Social and Political Union) proudly co-opted the name and were known ever after as suffragettes,” Roberts explained.
During their long series of protests, women were finally granted a permit that allowed them to demonstrate in Lafayette Square directly across from the White House. This marked the first time that such an action had ever been permitted and political demonstrations have been staged there ever since.
Finally, in 1920, seven years after the first D. C. protest, Tennessee ratified the voting amendment, meaning it had approval from enough states to become federal law.
Of course the right to vote was huge, but it was just another big battle in the overall war for gender equality, a conflict that remains ongoing today. We were reminded of that this week as Democratic congresswomen and female senators wore white to President Donald Tump’s State of the Union message at the Capitol. The early 20th Century suffragists donned white to generate photo coverage in daily newspapers. “It’s a color that going to stand out in a sea of navy suits, so that looks good on television,” Boggs Roberts told The Washington Post.
As women continue to reenact the actions of those bold, brave women who came before them, they are appreciative of all those who sacrificed and realize that, as women, they have indeed, as the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercial used to contend, “come a long way baby” from 1913. But there is a quite a distance yet to travel. And, by the steps they take, these modern women and their supporters indicate they will continue to march until gender parity is both a legal reality and embedded in the daily behavior reflected in the social fabric of America.
Boggs Walters included a self-directed DC Suffrage walking tour in her book. Here are the stops.
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument (144 Constitution Avenue NE)
Capitol Visitor Center (First Street and East Capitol Street)
The Peace Monument (First Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW)
The National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Avenue)
Freedom Plaza (Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Thirteenth Steet NW and Fourteenth Street NW)
U. S. Treasury Department (1500 Pennsylvania Avenue)
The White House (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue)
Lafayette Square (Bounded on the north by H Street NW, on the east by by Madison Place NW, on the south by Pennsylvania Avenue NW and on the west by Jackson Place NW)
How is a Donald Trump political rally like a Bruce Springsteen concert? Let me count the ways. Before last week, I had never really considered comparing the two. But on Thursday, I attended a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Phillips Arena here in Atlanta with about 20,000 enthusiastic Springsteen fans. Three days later, I was at a Donald Trump for President rally at the World Convention Center just across the street from the Phillips Arena with more than 10,000 equally rabid Trump followers.
Here’s what I discovered
1. In a post 9/11 America, you have to go through detection screeners when entering a venue to see either Springsteen or Trump.
I passed through the Springsteen screening with no problem, but I was detained by a Secret Service Agent for additional body screening with Trump. Maybe it was because I looked more like a Springsteen supporter than a Trump fan. Or maybe it was just the metal in the belt I was wearing Sunday.
2. Both Springsteen and Trump use music before their shows to set the stage and pump up the crowd’s anticipation and excitement.
Rock stars almost always employ music they admire as pre-concert background. Candidates do the same. Trump claims he personally selects the music played before he takes the stage. On Sunday, the pre-show playlist leaned heavily on the Rolling Stones (“You Can’s Always Get What You Want,” “Time Is on My Side” etc). The Daily Beasthas labeled Trump’s choice “arguably the best, most fantastic, and most eclectic campaign list of the 2016 election”. But there is a problem. Apparently, Trump has not asked the groups including the Stones for permission to use their songs. Interestingly, Springsteen has also been at the center of a political song choice. Ronald Reagan had to stop using Springsteen’s anthem “Born in the USA” when he ran for president in the 80s.
3. Springsteen and Trump are greeted with standing ovations involving thunderous clapping, shouting, and screaming the minute they are seen on stage.
If you’ve ever been to a big concert or packed rally with a popular politician you know the noise level we’re talking about here.
4. Opening questions are often used to get the crowd focused on what’s coming next.
During his Radio Nowhere tour, Springsteen would shout: “Can anybody out there hear me?” For Trump on Sunday it was “Are we going to win Georgia or what?” In both cases, the answer was a roaring “Yes1”
5. New “bits” and old “hits” are mixed into every performance.
On his current tour, Springsteen and the E Street Band are performing their double album The River in its entirety. Several of the River’s tracks have rarely been performed. However, the 2nd part of the show is given over to more familiar songs such as “Thunder Road,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Born to Run”. For Trump on Sunday, the new came from the fact that one day earlier he had convincingly won the South Carolina primary. Here’s what he had to say about that: “We won with women – I love the women. We won with men. I’d rather win with women to be honest with you. We won with evangelicals. Tall people, short people, fat people, skinny people. We won. It was a beautiful day”.
Of course, the candidate interspersed his message with such tried Trump themes as winning (“When I’m President you are going to get so tired of winning”) and losers (“They’re such losers. Just losing all the time”.
6. Fans are adamant about their admiration.
Ed Edwards and his son Matt. Both are 100% for Trump. Wife and daughter-in-law Michelle Nelsonisn’t so certain. She is currently debating between Trump and Marco Rubio. But she does dismiss the 3rd frontrunner for the GOP nomination Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “Ted Cruz is evil,” Michelle says.
Noted rock critic Jon Landau wrote these famous words about Springsteen in 1974: “I have seen rock n’ roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. In 2016, 69-year-old Ed Edwards of Fayetteville, Georgia, and his 36-year-old son, Matt, of Acworth have seen the future of the America they want and its name is Donald Trump. The father: “He’s not a politician. We don’t have control of our borders. And if we don’t have control of our borders, we have no country. Our country is going to hell in a hand basket. Donald Trump will change that”. The son: “I don’t think he can be bought. I think he’s our last hope. We’re screwed without him”.
7. Fans not only voice their support, they wear it.
On Thursday, I wore this favorite T-shirt to the Springsteen show.
This is the back of my favorite Trump T-shirt I discovered at his venue.
8. The thematic idea of a river and all it can symbolize ran through both performances.
In his song about loss “The River,” Springsteen sang these lines on Thursday:
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Or Trump on loss and the American Dream:
I thought to myself
People are angry because they’re tired of being the stupid people.
We have a right to be angry
Because we have been sold down the river.
9. Since both events were live, glitches can, and did, happen.
Springsteen failed severely to hit a note. On the giant monitors above the stage, you could see him chuckling at his failure. For Trump, it was the case of the Day the Lights Went Out in Georgia, which you can see for yourselves by clicking here.
10. Despite the fact that they are incredibly wealthy (Trump a billionaire, Springsteen a multi-multi millionaire) both superstars have come to stand with and speak for the common working men and women of this land.
Don’t believe me – run a quick check on Springsteen’s song titles or lyrics. For Trump, look at the economic statistics of his most staunch supporters. Or their musical listening favorites.
11. Both are famous enough to have songs written about them.
For Springsteen, it was the Eric Church hit “Springsteen” with lyrics like “When you think about me, do you think about 17? Do you think about my old jeep? Think about the stars in the sky? Funny how a melody sounds like a memory. Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night. Springsteen, Springsteen, woh-oh-oh Springsteen”. It wasn’t played on Thursday. For Trump, it was this unnamed song played by an unknown artist on Sunday with lyrics like “Don’t be a chump, vote for Trump. He’s got the power up in Trump Tower”.
12. Because of their power and success in their respective fields, Springsteen and Trump have both earned the title “The Boss.”
The Boss has been Bruce Springsteen’s nickname since he first began directing bands at the Jersey shore in the 1970s. For Trump, it’s a sobriquet he was bequeathed when he began building his real estate empire in Manhattan and solidified when he became the host of the hit reality TV show “The Apprentice”. As the Boss, both had to fire people. Springsteen once fired the entire E Street Band to explore a solo career, but thankfully brought them back together again. “You’re fired,” became a Trump catchphrase on “The Apprentice”. NBC then proceeded to fire Trump himself over derogatory remarks he made about immigrants as a candidate.
I could go on. But I think I have established my premise. There are a lot of similarities between a Trump rally and a Springsteen concert. Now, I’m not saying they’re identical. There are obvious differences. But in many ways, Trump and Springsteen are mirror images of one another. The words of Trump and the lyrics of Springsteen may be quite different in tone and text, but they are addressing many of the same issues – loss, economic instability, change and uncertainty, fate and the future. Both talk about the restoration and reaffirmation of America and the American Dream.
But, as of right now, while both are touring the country, only one is running for President. Ed Edwards and his son have their man and his name is Donald Trump.
One comes at problems from the right; the other the left. Both, I would argue, want to make America great. Trump would add “again”. Springsteen might be more comfortable with “truly for the first time”. Both have expressed ideas how to accomplish that; one through fiery, simplistic oratory, the other through image-enhanced song lyrics. Both want to lead people to their vision of America’s promised land.
No offense to Ed, or his son Matt, or the thousands here in Georgia and the millions across the country who are joining them, or even Mr. Trump himself, but I’m much more of a Springsteen guy. Maybe, despite his lyrics, Bruce just wasn’t born to run. At least politically.
But hey Boss – from one Jersey guy to another – how about it? You and the Donald in a winner-take-all struggle for the direction of the American Dream and the very soul of our country. Now that’s a series of shows between two great showmen that would definitely satisfy my hungry political heart.