People have, perhaps, certain ideas about entertainers – musicians, actors, models et cetera – that they are one-dimensional characters who know best how to do their one thing. When a notable star comes out to support a candidate, we are sometimes surprised at that person’s intellectual depth. When the star becomes the candidate and then the public servant, his or her capacity is pushed to the limits and exposed for all to witness.
John Hall is not the only successful entertainer to make the temporary transition from stagelights to the political arena, but he is one who lived to tell the tale in a new memoir: Still the One: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Journey to Congress and Back. Born in 1948 into an intellectually inclined family, Hall grew up in a conversation about life that most of us would admire. Science and music and sociology and philosophy and spirituality were somewhat common subjects in his household. No wonder he felt free enough to pursue his avocation in rock ‘n’ roll at a time when major musicians were also addressing these same issues.
For Hall, the challenges of the common people became ones that he felt compelled to address. He was elected to the Ulster County Legislature in 1989 and to the Saugerties Board of Education in 1991. Later he successfully threw his hat into the ring and won a seat as the US Representative for New York’s 19th Congressional District, serving from 2007 to 2011. His musical colleagues performed at fundraisers, making it possible for him to finance a winning campaign against an entrenched incumbent in a historically Republican district.
I recently talked with Hall, who is happily out of public office now, and in between doing gigs with Orleans and setting up his book tour and hanging out with his family.
Talk about the process of digging into your past to write this account.
I wish I had journaled. I have staff members who I talked to from my congressional staff, and I checked things with them. And I have a pretty good memory. Certain things jumped out at me from my childhood and the early days in the music business. I’ve told all these stories before, but after I got out of Congress, I’d tell friends a little piece of it, and they’d go, “Wow. You should write a book. The ordinary person never gets to hear that or see that. You should put it in a book.” This was several years ago. I really buckled down and got serious about the writing in the last two years. I wanted to get it done while it’s still close to being contemporary.
When you decided to run for public office, did you hesitate at all, considering the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle you once partook of?
Of course. I also had hesitation in terms of my schedule and my time and my family: all the things that any potential candidate would worry about – “Can I raise enough money?” being one of the big ones. The first time I ran was on a local level in Saugerties. My ex-wife Johanna and were living there with our young daughter. The first case of my getting active – like, activist-active – was when the New York State Power Authority announced plans to build a nuclear plant on the Hudson River six miles north of Saugerties. I got involved with the Mid-Hudson Nuclear Opponents, and Orleans did a concert at the Bardavon, and we raised money to help pay the attorneys and do research and have expert witnesses testify at the hearings. We were able to stop that through our work and other people’s work – and partly because the reactor the state had contracted to buy was the identical reactor to the one at Three Mile Island. Once that one partially melted down, the whole thing went down the tubes, and the public was really upset at the fact that 150 million dollars of ratepayers’ money had been spent without a single permit having been given. It showed the arrogance of the government agency.
The next time I ran into a similar thing was with Ulster County’s dump and incinerator they had plans for building on the Winston Farm in Saugerties. I decided it was either it or me. I wasn’t going to move, and I didn’t want it to be there. I thought it would negatively affect future development and the character of the town. Virtually, the whole town stopped that from happening.
Then I ran for School Board, which is a different experience because you don’t run as a member of a political party; you run as an individual. It’s kind of the purest form of democracy, in that you don’t get paid anything. You get up after a couple of bites of dinner and run down to the School District Administration Building to take part in a meeting that could go till midnight, then get home after everybody’s asleep. You’re giving up time with your family for absolutely no pay or benefits. No matter what you do, somebody’s gonna be mad at you. So it’s really a thankless job, and a very important job: something that I would encourage anybody interested in government, and especially education, to get involved with.
Each time I was a reluctant candidate. When I ran for Congress in 2006, there were already four other candidates headed for the Democratic primary. I was hoping to find one I could support and help raise money for. I met each one of them, and I wound up thinking I would have a better chance to get elected – which I did. My first concern was: “Can I raise enough money to get elected?” If you can’t get your friends and family to donate money to your campaign and convince them you’re the right person for the job, you’ll never convince a stranger.
Did your background in the music business equip you in any way to get involved in government? Did you ever have to prove your ability to think, to be allowed to operate as a politician and congressperson?
Yes, I think I did have to prove that I was not just a tree-hugging guitar player. I was underestimated each time I ran for any office, and the other side – the Republican Party – was hoping they’d get me as an opponent. My Dad was a PhD in Electrical Engineering, and my Mom was a postgrad degree graduate and the first women in the United States to graduate from a Jesuit seminary. I’d like to say the apple fell between the two trees. My older brother was an actuary – a mathematical specialist – and my younger brother was a priest. And I was a guy who wrote songs that a lot of people said were too preachy, about social issues and environmental issues, and obviously some love songs.
I got a reputation as a guy who talked a lot about issues. I was always ready to debate and found gaps in my opponents’ knowledge that I found striking. I quickly convinced people I could do the job, and I actually worked harder; my four years in Congress were the hardest I’ve ever worked. And I really worked really hard on Broadway and touring with a band, and all that stuff. But nothing like the 13-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job that being a member of Congress becomes, if you’re conscientious about it. I like to think I helped my constituents and people around the country in general.
When you’re deeply enmeshed in policymaking and caucusing for your chosen issues, how do you deal with setbacks and disappointments? How do you keep from becoming cynical when so much is at stake now?
I like to say I was trained in a business that was “purer than the driven snow and had nothing to do with money”: the music business. That’s a joke, of course. Rock ‘n’ roll was the first place the word “payola” was coined, when a deejay was caught taking payments to play records on the radio so they would become hits. Congress held a hearing on it and passed a law to stop it. So that’s the business I came up in, and I certainly got frustrated and cynical there. I was kinda prepared for politics – especially now after Citizens United, where money speaks in a big way. I think these billionaire or corporate contributions should be eliminated from our campaign system. That won’t happen unless we elect a president who has the same philosophy and who can appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will uphold it and a Senate who will confirm those judges.
Right now, in this election, that’s very important. Whatever else you think about the two candidates and the parties – some people think they’re all the same – I’m here to tell you they’re not all the same. One very definite difference is the Supreme Court, if you want to have any women’s reproductive rights; or an EPA that’s funded well enough to be able to carry out its duties to keep our water and air clean; and an FDA that will keep our food from all being genetically modified without our knowing it or from having contaminants coming in from China; or if you want to have better airplane security, which means regulations and personnel that costs money. This year, I’d say to people to make it a serious vote, not a protest vote, because we really have only two choices. We’d better pick the one that puts us on the road to reining in climate change and getting the big money out of politics and so on.
You finished this book between the primary election and the general. Didn’t you want to know how that came out first, so you could comment on it?
Oh, l’ll know! I could have waited, but then I would be old news even more than I am now. The most interesting thing about the book that I tried to put forward is that anybody from any walk of life who has the interest and motivation can help to change the status quo. You can run for office or work for a candidate you believe in or work for a nonprofit that works on those issues. Volunteer or apply for a staff job. But what you can’t – shouldn’t – do is sit back on the couch and say, “If I ran things…” I was one of those people, and my wife Pamela told me, “Either change the channel on the TV or get up and do something about it.” So I did.
After ten years in elected office, I’m not planning on running again. It’s somebody else’s turn. But I’m still very interested in what kind of world my granddaughter is going to be living in. It’s our job to try to keep it on the path where it’s actually habitable, so that all our children and grandchildren have a chance. Anyway, that’s my speech now.
John Hall book talk, Thursday, September 22, 6 p.m., Oblong Books and Music, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com.