MY LIFE AND AMAZING ADVENTURES
(attending a caucus training session
at Coe in 1992;
from the Cedar Rapids Gazette archives)
I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. My sister,
Susan Dudek, and my brother, Mark Nesmith, still live in that
area. I attended Wheaton Central
High School and graduated in 1977.
I graduated from North Central College in
Naperville, Illinois in 1981. My main pursuit there was radio
station WONC, where I did shows
with names like "The Bruce Nesmith Extravaganza" and "Brucemania". You
may go and check their web site (and listen to WONC on RealAudio!) but
only if you promise to attend Coe instead!
I worked briefly as a news announcer at WBOX in Bogalusa, Louisiana before turning
to the relative sanity (?!) of professional academia.
I received my Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1987,
under the direction of the redoubtable and extremely helpful Professor
Lester G. Seligman. My first full-time job was at Western Illinois University. I have
been at Coe since 1989.
My current research, collaborating with Paul J. Quirk of
the University of British Columbia, evaluates the performance of
presidents and Congress in a number of public policy cases. My one and
only published book is The New Republican Coalition: The Reagan
Campaigns and White Evangelicals, published by Peter Lang in 1994. Quirk
and I co-authored a chapter in The
Elections of 2008, published by CQ Press, and have a chapter on
presidential advising in Governing
at Home, published by Kansas University Press in 2011.
I am a member of the American Political Science Association,
though I rarely am able to attend the annual meetings. On the other
hand, I am not a member of the Midwest
Political Science Association, but attend their meeting in Chicago
almost every spring.
I volunteer at Garfield School in Cedar
My guest appearance on Iowa Public Radio's Politics
I am a frequent commentator on KXEL Radio (1540am) and local
and have been quoted in newspapers regarding:
read in 2016:
- party identification data (Gazette,
- Monica Lewinsky (Gazette, 3/4/99)
- the Republican Party (Gazette, 3/14/99)
- George W. Bush (NY Times, 6/11/99)
- negative campaigning (Gazette,
- Orrin Hatch and the Mormon Church
- the 22nd Amendment (Gazette, 2/27/01)
- Cedar Rapids city elections
elections and the war (USA Today, 10/9/02)
- Midwestern values (Gazette, 8/6/04)
- Cedar Rapids's proposed charter
- John G. Roberts, Supreme Court nominee (Gazette, 7/19/05)
Vilsack's presidential campaign (KGAN, 2/23/07)
McCain's presidential campaign (Gazette, 7/14/07)
State of the Union address (1/24/12)
visit to Cedar Rapids (7/10/12)
Cruz's visit to Iowa (10/25/13)
This Old Man: All
in Pieces by Roger Angell. I first encountered Roger Angell in
1974 when my grandmother bought me The Summer Game for my
birthday. His latest is a collection of short pieces, mostly written in
the last few years, on aging, writing, editing and, of course,
baseball. His power over the English language remains undiminished, nor
his talent for free association (Ingmar Bergman makes it into a report
on the 2012 World Series), nor his ability to illuminate overlooked
aspects of the phenomena he explores. This may not serve as your
introduction to his writing, but will richly reward his fans who don't
subscribe to the New Yorker.
The Name of God
is Mercy by Pope Francis. This little book contains the papal
bull issued in 2015 calling for a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning last
December, and a series of question-and-answer sessions conducted by
Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli. The conversation is informed with
frequent attribution of authorities, but readily accessible to
non-scholars. Francis argues that mercy is the paramount value of the
Christian faith, and the major way in which we manifest God in the
world. It is also really really hard, both to grant and to accept. The
format lends itself to repetitiveness, but that only serves to
underscore his simple but difficult message.
American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Elegantly written
prose-poetry reflecting on how it is when race is not merely an issue
to consider but an inescapable fact of life. Excellent revelation of
the interior life of the mind. She makes clear that, even for the
well-intentioned, race is a tangled web that it take maybe generations
to unravel, if even then.
read in 2015:
All the Truth is
Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai. Retelling of
the imploding candidacy of Gary Hart in 1987, with a decent argument it
was a Rubicon point in American politics, albeit Bai is clearly
sympathetic to Hart. Its best contribution is to raise questions about
contemporary politics in America, specifically the role of news media,
the substance of candidate messages, the balance between issue
positions and personality in evaluating candidates, and what
information is relevant to evaluating presidential character.
World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Concise,
powerful and disturbing. Effective and touching use of the tragedy of
Coates's college classmate Prince Jones. The book jacket promises "a
transcendent vision for a way forward," but I'm not seeing that.
Diary of a Genius
by Salvador Dali. Occasionally amusing, very public thoughts of the
surrealist painter with the amazing mustache, set in the years
Theories, Ancient and Medieval by William Archibald Dunning. Old
text (1902) but still valuable introduction to major political
philosophers from Plato to Machiavelli, well-situated in their
historical contexts. More attention to some texts--Machiavelli's
Discourses, for one--than I'm used to in introductory texts.
Jonathan Franzen. Through loops of time tells the stories of those who
have intersected the life of our mysterious heroine. As we go back and
forth through time some questions are answered while others get raised.
By the end I was wondering whether nature or nurture offered the best
hope for her.
Rights Talk: The
Impoverishment of Political Discourse by Mary Ann Glendon. While
recognizing the importance of individual rights, author questions
the American tendency--if anything amplified in the years since
publication--to cast any political issue as a contest of rights. In an
erudite but accessible discussion, she articulates what we lose: a
sense of greater responsibility, a sense of community, and mostly the
ability to have a conversation about the society we want to be.
The Odd Woman and the
City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick. Beautifully written, prose
poem about her life in and relationship with New York City. More
segmented essay than memoir, though there are some memories in it. She
expresses, rather like Thomas Merton on that street corner in
Louisville, a love for the humanity around her that sees past peoples'
frailties and faults... though it's the tough sort of love I guess one
would expect from a New Yorker.
Something Must Be
Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green. Skillful
weaving of historical narrative with personal and family connection.
With many of the participants in the school shutdown still living, how
people respond to it today (or don't) is as compelling as the original
My Name Escapes
Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor by Alec Guinness. Diary
written for public consumption, late (1995-96) in the life of the
legendary actor. Sweet, good-natured commentary on his life and current
events, liberally sprinkled with reminiscences. Even when he is candid
it is gently couched. It's like encountering Obi-Wan Kenobi in
retirement, except that Guinness is quite clearly ambivalent about
being associated with that role.
The Diary of
James C. Hagerty: Eisenhower in Mid-Course, 1954-1955. Good
blow-by-blow account of the Eisenhower administration, year 2 and most
of year 3. Like a Boswell, Hagerty provides Eisenhower's best quotes
and key interactions, but also insights into his own job as press
secretary. Eisenhower comes across as a quasi-independent, frustrated
by his own party's congressional leadership but suspicious of the
motivations of the other party.
An Officer and a
Spy by Robert Harris. Novelization of the notorious Dreyfus
affair, covering the period between the first trial in 1894 and the
second trial in 1898, from the perspective of Col. Piquart, who exposed
the flaws in the evidence that led to his conviction. Fast-paced and
suspenseful, while being true to the history. Dreyfus in this telling
was doomed less by anti-Semitism (though it was a convenient way to
rouse the rabble when needed) than by bureaucratic turf protection and
standard operating procedures.
The New York
Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William B.
Helmreich. Exceptional profile of New York City--all of it, not just
Manhattan--by a sociologist and lifelong resident who set out to walk
every block of it. The walks and the conversations he starts serve as
the basis for discussion of a variety of topics related to urban life.
There are chapters on gentrification, ethnicity, safety, and social
life, for example. To be at once thorough, engaging, personal and
scientific is really a remarkable achievement.
by Kevin Henkes. Female heroine of YA novel confronts changes in
herself and the people around her. Feels like junior high enough that
I'm sure it's authentic.
by Nick Hornby. A new book by Nick Hornby, set in the early(ish) days
of television... what's for me not to like? The book amusing in spots,
and deeply reflective, though gentle on its characters--the few really
bad things that happen occur outside the narrative. The core ensemble
of characters are well-developed, and their interior lives sustain a
rather thin plot.
Between: A Christian's Encounter with the Built Environment by
Eric O. Jacobsen. A Christian's first book of urbanism, reflecting
passions both for Biblical Christianity and for life in communities. It
makes a persuasive case that Christians should care about the design of
towns. Thorough, sometimes dense prose, interspersed with anecdotes and
thought-provoking suggestions like "the orange juice test."
Diary of a
Nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945 by Ursula von Kardorff. Another
gutsy diary of the Nazi years, makes gripping reading. She and the
people around her suffered under Hitler, during the Allies' offensive,
and during the occupation. She is constantly worried about her family
and friends, slowly becomes aware of the Holocaust, and weeps at
tragedies but maintains her sense of humor as well.
Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston. First of three volumes (so
far--three more are planned) on everyday life in post-WW2 Britain.
Richly detailed, so much so that it sometimes gets bound up in itself,
but on the whole fascinating. For an American, the degree of British
government involvement in the economy (not to mention the persistent
shortages of goods) is striking. Specific cultural references can be
obscure to a foreigner, but not so much that you lose the points he's
1951-1957 by David Kynaston. Second in a series of post-war
histories is chocked with details, sometimes dizzyingly presented. Yet
the overall effect is a thorough picture of life in Britain out of
wartime rationing and into the television age.
America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece by
Andrew Levy. Very interesting discussion of Huckleberry Finn in its
historical context, and in the context of Twain's life. It says a lot
more about child development than is normally thought, ably
demonstrated by the author. The racial angle is as ambiguous as ever,
but Levy turns over every rock to get there.
How It All Began
by Penelope Lively. Why is plummy historian Henry being fleeced by
on-the-make snothead Mark? Why are Jeremy and Stella Dalton on the
brink of divorce? Because Charlotte Rainsford, whom none of them knows,
was assaulted by a mugger on a London street. Lively artfully describes
the emanations from this event, and the lives they intersect, without
losing their threads or credulity.
Dust Bowl Diary
by Ann Marie Low. Edited version of a passionately written teenage
diary of 1927-37, the Depression and dust bowl years in North Dakota.
She writes of hardship, resourcefulness, and making do while trying to
make a life, while being thoroughly immune to the charms of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt. Epilogue brings the story to the date of
Building Strong Towns, vol. 1 by Charles L. Marohn Jr. Blog
posts from 2011 provide a good introduction to the Strong Towns
What We See When
We Read by Peter Mendelsund. Mendelsund attempts to intuit how
we process the fiction we read, particularly what images the words
create in our minds. He doesn't have a definitive answer, but watching
him pose the question in a variety of ways is fascinating. The graphic
design of the book, along with the excerpts from classic novels, make
it a memorable read.
Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation by Bruce M. Metzger.
Speculation by Jenny Offill. Weird but appealing little book.
Crafty, too--the author skillfully deploys astronomy metaphors, shifts
from first to third person, and short paragraphs that get even shorter
and more disconnected depending on the mental state of the narrator (a
middle aged woman in a struggling marriage).
Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips. Little book about a
strange-yet-familiar world in which a sensitive young woman deals with
a soul-sucking job entering data at an enormous office. Can't quit...
student loan debts, needs the health insurance. Reads like a nightmare,
but realistic enough to be believable. A lot of wordplay that I didn't
understand, which may have been there to indicate the young heroine's
fragile mental state.
Diary of a German
Soldier by Wilhelm Prüller. Diary written for his wife by a
young Austrian who was a true believer in everything the Nazis spewed.
Hard to read, for that reason, but the tone is familiar as uncritical
young idealism. He was horribly, awfully wrong, but couldn't see it.
Don't be that guy.
Life: A People's History of the Lake District by James Rebanks.
Author depicts with care the earthbound life of traditional English
shepherds, who have somehow managed to carry on their lives in spite of
modernized mechanized agriculture all around them. He describes a life
lived close to nature, intimately involved with all of its processes,
where farms, herds and reputations go back generations. Occasionally a
bit defensive in tone, but he communicates across the cultural
Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Benjamin
Ross. Timely and impassioned commentary on urban sprawl--how it
happened, why it's harmful, and what is being or can be done about it.
Author brings an activist's perspective, which is valuable. Suggestions
are sensible but assume some prior knowledge of the controversies.
by Mohammed Ould Slahi. Disturbing read but an important book:
surprisingly good-natured memoir by Mauritanian Muslim detained at
Guantanamo Bay since 2002. (The manuscript was written in 2005 but
publication only was approved this year. He's still there, thanks to
the Obama administration.) His story depicts the mix of brutality,
fear, bureaucratic routine and occasional flashes of humanity that
constitutes the war on terror being waged in our name. The manuscript
is redacted, including removal of nearly all female pronouns, and at
one point one word that would seem to be "tears;" this only adds to the
tragic absurdity of his story.
Oak Hill: A
Portrait of Black Life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa by Eric A. Smith.
Good use of oral histories and what documentary evidence exists about a
historic and understudied Cedar Rapids neighborhood. Recent history
gets way too short shrift, and the editing is awful.
How to Build an Urban Village by David Sucher. Seattle-based
urbanist with practical design advice at three levels: three basic
rules, several broad topics and a blizzard of micro-level suggestions.
Liberally illustrated with excellent photographs.
Deep South: Four
Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux. A travel book with a
twist: Theroux returned several times during the course of the year to
many of the places he visited, and re-interviewed many of the people he
met. It's an important story, going off the beaten track in the
American South to see places that the wave of modernization has left
behind. (He doesn't go to Atlanta or Nashville or Dallas, but to little
towns and farms along two-lane highways. Alas, he also doesn't spend
much time in Louisiana, the one Southern state I know somewhat well.)
Themes are developed, sometimes hammered home with repetition: I lost
track of how many times he wondered why NGOs active in Africa are
uninterested in American poverty. The rural and small-town poor,
bewildered by a world that has left behind, turn to answers in--wait
for it--religion and guns. It's an angry sort of religion, though, less
about love than about the end times and "homosexuals taking over." Guns
are not so much purchased as amassed into arsenals of several dozen.
("I suppose you have a gun," he says to one man. "A gun?" comes the reply. "I
got 47.") Through it all Theroux treats those he encounters as fellow
humans, though I could do without the phonetic transcriptions of their
accents, which makes them seem dumbly alien.
Being Nixon: A
Man Divided by Evan Thomas. Sympathetic psychobiography of our
endlessly fascinating 37th President. Using mostly secondary sources
gets inside Nixon's head without speculating too wildly. Nixon comes
across as a mix of traits--at various times ruthless, generous,
opportunistic, scrupulous, strong-and-silent, demonstrative, awkward,
sociable, focused and distracted--which often reveal themselves at the
Emma Jane Unsworth. Laura and Tyler have reached the age when being a
party animal transitions from cute to gross. Their struggles to adjust
are touching, not to mention carefully portrayed, but get tiresome
31 Days: The Crisis That Gave
Us the Government We Have Today by Barry Werth. Recounts the
first month of the Ford administration. It brought back memories of
that awkward but interesting period of U.S. history, in more detail
than I would have gotten at 15. He shows Ford struggling with the
transition, the economy, and the question of what to do about Nixon.
His fundamental decency and self-assurance saw him through, but he was
politically weakened by the pardon (and got no help from Nixon, who was
self-concerned). Werth argues Ford's weakness allowed for conservatives
to assert themselves in the Republican Party with lasting repercussions
(Cheney, Rumsfeld, e.g.).
by Hugh B. Wood. U of Oregon education professor recalls being part of
Nepal's 1950s efforts to create a nation-wide education system.
Books I read in 2011-2014
Books I read in 2010
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like Home!
last update 2/17/16