What Colbert and Springsteen Can Teach the Next President about American Power

Bruce Springsteen, American musician, on stage at an Amnesty International Concert, Wembley Stadium, London, 1988. (Photo by
Bruce Springsteen, American musician, on stage at an Amnesty International Concert, Wembley Stadium, London, 1988. (Photo by Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images)

There was something magical and even transcendental in the air last Friday at the Ed Sullivan Theater when Stephen Colbert hosted Bruce Springsteen for his first-ever interview in the "Late Show." This was a bit of rock history in the making, in line with the theater's great tradition. Like February 4, 1964, when the Beatles made their US debut on this very stage, just a few feet away from where Springsteen and Colbert had their fascinating conversation. This episode was clearly up there among the best American television can offer. In precious little time Colbert was able to tease out from Bruce Springsteen the essence of what makes rock 'n' roll so special. Why it has grown up to be an equal partner to the best of the best in world-cultural heritage. Being a rock musician of a sort myself, it was touching to hear Springsteen's explanation about how his job is to take his audience into a different state of mind at his concerts, to a different universe. But to many of us it was much more. It was a reminder of America's once secret and forgotten weapon to influence hearts and minds, in bringing down authoritarian regimes.

Back in the '60s and '70s, into the '80s, all the way to the tectonic changes of 1989, American popular culture played an incredibly important role for us in Communist Eastern Europe, turning our heads toward freedom and democracy. Even the most repressive regimes in Russia and East Germany could not put the "Rock and Roll Genie" back into the bottle. From the moment we heard Elvis and then the Beatles for the first time, we understood that this music is going to change the world forever. From then on, millions of young people in the East got closer to their brothers and sisters in the West, the music cut across the Iron Curtain. Listening to forbidden radio stations, we became one with our peers in the West. Rock and roll music was the "social media" of the day that connected us. Perhaps, at that time, these great musicians had no idea how they blew a hole in the seemingly solid repressive systems.

I was in the crowd 28 years ago, almost exactly to the day, when Springsteen and the E-Street Band came to my hometown Budapest with Amnesty International to bring the message of freedom and hope as part of their Freedom Now tour. When he sang "Born in the USA," 50,000 Hungarians roared and sang along. For them this was the Hymn to Freedom. A year later, the Berlin Wall fell and together with other Eastern European countries Hungary walked free.

I know millions in Europe and across the world watched Friday's show, a reminder that America does not cease to attract and impress. Maybe we should put this in a much larger context. These days our liberal democratic values of freedom and democracy, tolerance, acceptance and inclusion are being tested from the outside and from within. We are taking democracy and freedom for granted, and we are wrong about it. Colbert and Springsteen tell us that we shouldn't. Populism, xenophobia, intolerance toward religious minorities and the LGBT community is on the rise. This is dangerous. Friday's show was an incredible reminder of the power of rock and roll, of American popular culture, of American soft-power. And perhaps also of the incredible responsibility America and Americans have in a world full of threats and challenges.

I often think about the way rock and roll has seemingly lost its clout and influence. Or has it?

I wonder what the rock and roll of the 21st-century is. Rock and roll made America stronger in the world, and that should never be forgotten. What happened in the '60s cannot be replicated. But then maybe rock and roll is just a metaphor for something that touches the hearts and minds with equal force, something that works miracles when it's honest and sincere, when it is embraced but not controlled by those in power; something that carries the message of freedom and empowerment, the ability to change the world for the better, in an accepting, tolerant and embracing manner. Colbert comes pretty close to that.

This past Monday there was another show watched across the globe; the first presidential debate between the Republican and the Democratic nominees. In many ways it is terrifying how this "other show" fascinates but also terrifies the world. The two candidates running for President ought to take time out of their crazy schedule to watch this very episode of the "Late Show," be inspired by it and draw some conclusions about how they, if they were to become President of the United States will build on the wisdom, creativity and shrewdness of Americans like Stephen Colbert and Bruce Springsteen. How they will help let loose America's not-so-soft "soft-power" in the world to impress and convince.

As a first step maybe I'll buy a Blue Stratocaster for Hillary and a Red one for Donald.