Horse sense

The news is full of speculation over the California recall, and whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to enter the race. While admittedly given "Terminator 3"'s mediocre showing both artistically and financially it may well be that Arnold should pound the pavement for other career options, there's currently only one celebrity I can think of who represents the kind of values we should be seeing in our American leadership today. Well, two, but the other one's dead, and besides, he's a horse, so I'm not sure he counts.

Over the last two days, I've seen Bruce Springsteen play Giants Stadium, and a horse named Seabiscuit run like the wind in the movie theaters, and looking at each of them in light of the other ended up being pretty illuminating.

There may not be a single person in the United States of America between the ages of 10 and 60 who hasn't, at one time or another, been deeply affected by a Bruce Springsteen song. The man has been making music for us for three decades; over that period, he's transformed himself from the poetic chronicler of young men's dreams of high octane and guitar salvation to the elegist of the ruined American city and of the dreams of glory days. In a post-2001 world, he's encouraged us to rise up, in a hopeful voice tinged with the grim knowledge that times might still get worse before they get better.

"Seabiscuit" is the story of another thoroughbred that was, um, born to run. In the hands of the motion picture industry, the clearly remarkable story of this unlikeliest of winning horses becomes a metaphor for the possibilities of scrappy American individualism and heart to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In the darkest hours of the Great Depression, the movie suggests, the poor and the despairing were able to see a little of themselves in the little horse that could, showing that happy days could in fact be here again.

The Great Depression has been a touchstone for Springsteen - his title of his album "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is a homage to the character from John Steinbeck's seminal Depression novel "The Grapes of Wrath". Springsteen has always been able to take other places and times and make them speak to us; it's not such a stretch now, as George W. Bush will almost certainly become the first president to end a term of office with the fewest individuals employed since a Depression-era official named Herbert Hoover. Springsteen's historical cynicism might be willfully misunderstood at times - remember how a complicated song about Vietnam vets' troubles called "Born in the USA" became a patriotic chest-thumper? - but the songs themselves are a heady reminder of the complicated way we couch our truths in fantasies and dreams to get through the day.

One of the most interesting ways that "Seabiscuit" recasts its story is in its presentation of the struggles of this plucky horse and its equally plucky owner, trainer, and jockey not merely as rich against poor, common man against the elite, self-made against the old money, but also the West against the East: Seabiscuit's owner has made his money in California, the new frontier, while in setting up the match race that serves as the film's dramatic climax, War Admiral's plutocrat owner refuses to fight anywhere but on his own turf - the East Coast.

There are certain similarities between the geographic prejudices of War Admiral's owner and a president whose pride in Texas sometimes seems to come at the expense of other areas of the country he governs, particularly liberal areas; compare the team around Seabiscuit, who despite their Western roots barnstorm across the country, making friends and supporters as they go.

Compare Springsteen, too; though he is the ultimate Jersey boy made good, as was made amply clear in the concert at the Meadowlands, he's also been attracted to the vast and trackless American West, the open lands where you can lose yourself or find a kind of rough redemption. Seabiscuit speaks - well, neighs - for all America, the movie suggests; certainly, the screaming fans packing stadiums all over the country say the same for Springsteen.

"Screaming fans" isn't quite accurate, though; it gives the suggestion of a mob, and though there were a lot of people at Giants Stadium, the feel was very different. The fans were all ages: little children were holding their parents' hands, and there were some people dancing in the dark who had probably gotten their AARP cards some years before. Everyone got along better than fine, though: people who were tailgate picnicking in the parking lot hours before the concert started, laughing together, even offering food to one another.

And when the sun set and the music began, Bruce managed to do something remarkable: he turned 55,000 people into a bit of a family. The fact that that it could happen, that it did happen, to people who are supposed to be atomized and self-centered, made me aware that the spirit we're told was the possession of the "Greatest Generation" and its predecessors just might be back in style -- if we have leaders who can manage to evoke it.

"Seabiscuit"'s final, similar message -- that the horse's ultimate gift was that he allowed for the creation of a family, a community; that somehow the broken-down horse Seabiscuit reemerged a champion, and fixed the jockey, the trainer, the owner, America -- seems a bit stale, a bit museum-piece, compared to the live-wire excitement of a concert in the now. (The noted historian David McCullough's narration in the movie doesn't help dispel the impression of an exhibit for our edification.) Still, there are worse things to hear, even out of the mouths of horses.

Late in the concert, Springsteen dedicated a song to the troops in Iraq, and before doing so mentioned the current fracas over the seemingly bogus intelligence in the State of the Union address. He said that getting to the root of the issue wasn't a Democratic question it wasn't a Republican question. It was an American question.

Both Springsteen and "Seabiscuit" remind us about how being American is somehow being more and better than we'd like to think we are. I'd rather be Bossed than Terminated any day.

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