Ron Radosh

Mellencamp for Senate! Is The Nation Magazine Kidding?

The Nation crowd is touting singer-songwriter John Mellencamp as a proposed candidate most likely to win the Indiana Senate seat that is to be given up by the vacating Evan Bayh. John Mellancamp! Are they kidding? Evidently not.


This is the reasoning they offer: His songs are “an icon of Americana,” and have become, so they claim, “the backbone of populist political movements.” Gee, I thought that honor was reserved for Bruce Springsteen — but the problem is that he hails from New Jersey, which leaves Mellencamp to be acclaimed as the Bruce surrogate in the Hoosier state. Moreover, he has real political credentials. What are they, you may ask?  He actually “wrote a letter to John McCain” in which the proposed new Senator asked McCain to “stop political agendas, corporate greed and overall manipulation.” Think of it. McCain might have a political agenda! Since that is obviously bad, they don’t explain whether their magazine or Mellencamp might have one also.

Well, give him that one. Writing a letter shows some political concern. From that step, it’s just an easy skip and jump into the Senate club. And remember, he appeared at Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid,  helped the middle class, and best of all, has “rocker sensibility.”  Does he know anything about legislating, meeting with constituents, negotiating with Republicans and even other Democrats? Not necessary. The man rock and rolls! What more can you ask? Best of all, “he’s a true populist,” the Left’s answer to Sarah Palin.

Not to be outdone, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel went on television this week and made public her choice of Mellencamp, whom she said “has had a long track record with working for farmers and demonstrates true populist politics.”  Well if Katrina says it herself, it’s the clue for the troops to go all out for Mellencamp.


I wonder, if she had been editor of the magazine in the 30s and 40s, whether she would have been pushing to get Woody Guthrie to run for office. The fact is, there is not one person back then who would have made that suggestion, even his comrades in the Communist Party and Pete Seeger. They preferred Woody to function as what he liked doing best, writing and performing songs, and acting as the people’s bard whose lyrics hopefully propelled the left-wing base into working harder for FDR. That was sufficient.

Have they even asked Mellencamp? I don’t think anyone in the press has asked him as yet for a comment. But perhaps while he was at the White House a week ago for the civil rights musical testimonial, he and the president had a moment to toss over the prospect of a Senate run. Who knows? Perhaps he gave the word to vanden Heuvel, and she was chosen to be the one launching a trial balloon?  With this administration, after all, anything is possible.

So run John run. Nothing, I think, would make Indiana Republicans happier.

Update: 6 pm EST

One word from Katrina vanden Heuvel, and the “draft Mellencamp” effort is on the way. As USA Today puts it, the effort is “building up steam.” For the moment, it seems that the singer isn’t taking the bite. As his agent says, “he has no statement to offer.” His supporters can hope that first response isn’t a no.

Is this serious, and will the call from the Nation and film critic Roger Ebert, who is also urging that he run, lead to the Democrats picking him for the vacant spot? Some in Indiana are doubtful.   “‘I’d be amazed,’  says Brian S. Vargus, who teaches political science at Indiana University. ‘That would almost be as shocking as Evan’s timing’  not to run for his Senate seat again. ‘Indiana politics is a strange animal,  Mr. Vargus admits, adding this about a possible Mellencamp run: ‘If it could happen, anything could.’”


In the Los Angeles Times,  the paper’s cultural critic Patrick Goldstein writes that Brent Budowsky, once a top aide to Bayh’s dad Senator Birch Bayh, calls the idea of a Mellencamp candidacy “inspired” and “unique, one of a kind, a voice for the people who believe America needs a new brand of politics and new kind of leadership in the Senate. … I believe John Mellencamp would electrify the campaign and electrify Democrats who want a fighter for working people, farmers, small businesses and small-town America.”  Reading this, it certainly does seem this is the mid 30s once again, and we’re in the era of the new Popular Front.

Goldstein, wisely titles his slightly sarcastic column “American Fool,” and writes that “I can’t say that I’m especially enthusiastic about the party turning to showbiz non-pros in its desperate search for a viable candidate. Once you get past George Clooney, who seems to have a better grasp of most issues than about half of the House of Representatives, it would be hard to imagine any Hollywood type being a worthwhile candidate for any office above film commissioner.”

Sadly, John McCain was using some of Mellencamp’s songs at his campaign rallies, until the singer ordered him to stop. One must recall that New Jersey’s new Republican Senator Christie faced the same objections from Bruce Springsteen. Conservative candidates have to learn that because they know a singer’s music is popular, they better not try to use their music without permission, or they’ll quickly face embarrassing stop and desist orders from the singers.


But because any candidate thinks the music is conducive to their message doesn’t mean the songwriter or singer is himself viable as a candidate. Not only does Mellencamp not have any experience, like other naïve lefties,  as Allahpundit noted in a blog post, the singer told Charlie Rose in a 2007 interview that the U.S. hadn’t done enough to engage Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in diplomacy and dialogue! Boy, I can’t wait to see those Republican commercials in Indiana and a clip from the Rose interview if Mellencamp takes the bait.

The Nation magazine’s John Nichols, writing on the CBS news website, still argues that Mellencamp is uniquely poised to appeal to Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, precisely because Reagan in 1984 wanted to use his “Pink Houses” during the campaign, and McCain did use it until forced to stop by Mellencamp. Their desire to use his song, however, points to its ambiguity, and the ability of any candidate — left, right, or center — to adopt the song for his own campaign since the lyrics are universal and not particular to a current issue.

Indeed, one might recall that during the Reagan era celebration of the anniversary of 1776, the event at the Statue of Liberty included Frank Sinatra singing the Popular Front anthem written by Lewis Allen, “The House I Live In,” as well as Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Reagan and the producers of the event were clearly not trying to bring back Earl Browder’s slogan “Communism is 20th Century Americanism,” but they understood that the songs of that era — written by Communists — had taken on a life of their own and represented the spirit of America, in spite of the Communist songwriters’ intentions in the 30s and 40s.


So, the pressure is on poor John Mellencamp. Is he going to let all this adulation go to his head? Will he be content with being asked to sing on Nation cruises, when with a little more effort, he could gain a Senate seat and open his rallies with his own band, before thousands? Sure, the left thinks he’s their answer to Sarah Palin. A small town, down-home guy who can write good lyrics, and play guitar — whose songs are loved by many. But his own awareness on a deep level of political issues, I suspect, is about as up to par as Palin’s. Does he really want to spend eight hour days being schooled with the correct answers by Katrina vanden Heuvel, when he could stay on his farm with his family, relax, and perform when he chooses to on his own terms?

I do wonder what suggestion Katrina has next. My bet: Steve Earle for a Senate run on the New York ticket of the leftist Working People’s Party, in opposition to either Harold Ford or Kirstin Gillibrand, or Mort Zuckerman if he gets the Republican nomination. Remember, Katrina, I gave you the idea first!

What a jam session Earle and Mellencamp could have in the Senate chambers, and they could ask John Hall to join them. And yes, Al Franken could MC. Even I’d go to the Senate to hear them.

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