caucus training in 1992
(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 Rapids. 

    My guest appearance on Iowa Public Radio's Politics Wednesday 7/28/2010 and 8/11/10 and 1/5/11. I am a frequent commentator on WMT Radio (600am) and local television, and have been quoted in newspapers regarding:

Books I 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.
    Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali. Occasionally amusing, very public thoughts of the surrealist painter with the amazing mustache, set in the years 1952-1963.
    Political 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.
    Purity by 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.
    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 events.
    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.
    Olive's Ocean 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.
    Funny Girl 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.
    The Space 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.
    Austerity 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 making.
    Family Britain, 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.
    Huck Finn's 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 publication (1984).
    Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, vol. 1 by Charles L. Marohn Jr. Blog posts from 2011 provide a good introduction to the Strong Towns paradigm.
    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.
    Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation by Bruce M. Metzger.
    Dept. of 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).
    The Beautiful 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.
    The Shepherd's 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 barriers.
    Dead End: 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.
    Guantanamo Diary 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.
    City Comforts: 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.
    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 wrong times.
    Nepal Diary 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 2014:

    A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution by Carol Berkin. Breezy tale of the 1787 Constitutional Convention that focuses on the personalities involved as well as the issues. Sort of a "Miracle at Philadelphia" updated with more recent scholarship. She is an academic historian but includes no citations.
    My Three Years with Eisenhower by Harry C. Butcher. Diaries intended for publication risk self-consciousness and spin, but Butcher's superb blow-by-blow of his three years as Eisenhower's Naval Aide during World War II has offsetting virtues. It takes the reader inside the laborious planning phase for the invasion of Normandy and the nearly yearlong endgame of the war in Europe, reminding us how many uncertainties surrounded the effort. It details the need to account not only for military necessities but national and personal rivalries. There is tension with the news media but nothing like what would follow in Vietnam. All this is told in Butcher's magnificent writing voice: he comes across as good-humored, friendly, modest and imperturbable. He must have been a valuable guy to have around.
    Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler. Little Wing, Wisconsin is a fictional small town that must have a great deal of energy compressed into it. The novel switches perspectives among four friends, one of whom stays on his family farm while the other go elsewhere to attain great success in their respective fields. Yet they are always drawn back to the town. At its best this is a paean to home and friendship; at other times it's awfully Hallmarky.
    Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz.
This incisive, thought-provoking book is actually two books in one. Deresiewicz begins by examining the frantic success track on which students at elite colleges and university strive to keep up, with negative consequences to both students and society. This is carefully done, drawing on personal experience as well as other evidence, but is likely to be of limited interest unless you're planning to become one of America's elite. Eventually, though, he issues a broader critique of higher education, where the search for meaning is subordinated to the quest for a professional credential. Addressing students for the most part, but parents and faculty as well, he urges a more purposeful approach to college. My only complaint is he underplays some of the forces that lead everyone involved (including, most recently, President Obama) to focus exclusively on the money.
    A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. Alan Clay is 54 years old, trying to make sense of his life, to get back on the track he long since fell off, to matter somehow, to impress someone. The absurdity that his life has become finds its appropriate locale in Saudi Arabia, on a futile business trip to King Abdullah Economic City (acronymed KAEC, pronounced "Cake"). For a young man Eggers captures middle-aged angst perfectly.
    Zionism at the UN by Eliahu Elath. Day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of Elath's couple of months representing the Jewish Agency at the 1945 UN Conference on International Organizations. (The conference was a key step in the creation of the State of Israel.) Elath engaged in conversation with a wide variety of international representatives, most notably a number of Arabs with whom he had long-standing personal acquaintance. He is mostly micro-level, but occasionally steps back to give the arguments for creation of the State of Israel. But there's enough here to show that the creation of the state by European powers and the U.S. is not going to go down well with Arab residents of Palestine.
    The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher. Past the histrionic title, this book looks at trends in Americans' living situations, and tries to explain them as well as suggest some ways these trends might play out in the future. Gallagher manages to be both the breezy magazine writer and a perceptive miner of data. Another point in her favor is she clearly is trying to describe what's going on rather than prescribe what should happen, supported by interviews with a wide variety of stakeholders.
    Working with Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History: A Diary, 1928-1930; Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodston: A Diary, 1930-1933 by Lorenzo J. Greene. These books are well-written diaries from the early career of Greene, who became professor of history at Lincoln University in Missouri. It's a vivid account of the beginning of an academic career (complete with persnickety advisor), the nature of historical research, and the conditions of black life in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In addition, Greene was an avid New York Yankees fan (surprisingly taking no interest in the Negro Leagues) and apparently something of a rake.
    The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John Harris.
Harris is a journalist and pundit who distinguishes himself by his calm and dispassion. This attitude is sustained throughout this lengthy book on Clinton's eight year administration, providing perspective on the at times bewildering variety of individual events. It is accessible as well as thorough, with short topical chapters and journalistic language that never gets too technical or wonky. If you love Clinton, or hate Clinton, this book is probably not likely to suit you; but if you want to get a handle on his presidency, with a perspective that wears well ten years after publication, it should do fine.
    Seeking the Sacred in Contemporary Religious Architecture by Douglas R. Hoffman. Analytical, accessible, and lavishly-photographed introduction to thinking about the physical aspect of sacred places. Hoffman's use of a small number of focal cases, like St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, is particularly useful.
    Dark Age Ahead  by Jane Jacobs. In her last book, the articulate ur-urbanist manages to be both prophetic about America's present and hopeful about America's future. She describes five signs of crisis as our culture enters the post-industrial era, which must be addressed to prevent slipping into a "dark age" like the prehistoric hunter-gatherers, ancient Romans, or modern farm belts. (Declaring ourselves "exceptional" is not a good sign of self-awareness. They probably did, too.) But history has several examples of several adaptations, too, and Americans can profit by their examples. "Is suburban sprawl, with its murders of communities and wastes of land, time, and energy, a sign of decay? Or is rising interest in means of overcoming sprawl a sign of vigor and adaptability in North American culture? Arguably, either could turn out to be true" (pp. 169-170).
    Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder. Sort of an intellectual autobiography through conversations with Snyder during the last years of Judt's life. Judt's interests are wide-ranging, and the conversational (as opposed to expository) format makes them particularly hard to follow for someone not versed in all those areas. The last chapter is an interesting commentary/update on Judt's Ill Fares the Land (2010).
    Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler denies being a "doomer," just wants us to understand the difference between being hopeful about the future (which he says he is) and recklessly assuming it will be like a better version of now (which he says corporations, politicians and the news media want to sell us). Chapters critically analyze conventional optimism about suburban life, high technology, the financial sector, energy and the environment, arguing that resource limitations will sooner or later make it impossible to maintain anything close to our current global lifestyle. His blunt style is sometimes refreshing and sometimes irritating.
    10:04 by Ben Lerner.
A random but thoroughly enjoyable book. It has a sort of a plot, but that seems incidental to the interior life of the narrator. The free association in the mind of Lerner's hero makes for somewhat denser writing than you'll find in much contemporary fiction, but I didn't mind. In fact I sometimes reread paragraphs to make sure I didn't miss anything good.
    Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Jolly and highly readable romp through economics, formerly known as the dismal science. Less concerned with micro- or microeconomics than with seeing how powerful economic paradigms like incentives, and careful use of data, can illuminate the everyday world.
    How About Never--Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Robert Mankoff. Longtime New Yorker cartoonist, and their current cartoon editor, manages to be both analytical and humorous. Generously illustrated.
    The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armisted Maupin. 9th--9th?? yes, 9th--in Maupin's series of novels about San Francisco is just as sweet and life-affirming as its predecessors, even though Anna is in her 90s and suffering the effects of a stroke, and Michael "Mouse" is in his 60s and grumpy. Shit happens, as shit will, but it's endurable in the community of good friends. I had no problem following this though I haven't read the whole series, but it probably helps for the reader to have some prior familiarity with the characters. The sexual discussions are frank enough to make me uncomfortable, but that may be the point.
    Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. Collected reflections on local places from a number of disciplinary perspectives, growing out of a 2011 conference at Pepperdine's public policy school. There are several common themes, most notably the importance of place to individual identity, and the need to protect places from the bigs (government, planners, developers). I particularly valued Joseph A. Amato's essay on the role of local historians, and Gary Toth's piece on the impact of transportation policy choices on places.
    The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America by Gary B. Nash. Detailed, edgy, second look at the movement for American independence. Nash shows how the elites throughout this period sought to manage, and in some cases betrayed, the poor, nonwhite and women inspired by the revolutionary rhetoric. Shameful treatment of native populations is not overlooked.
    The Early Diary of Ana´s Nin. The first three volumes of Nin's early diary cover the years 1914-1927, beginning with her voyage to America with her mother and brothers. The diaries are exceptionally-written given her age at the time: main themes include her delusional attempts to reunite her family, her struggles at school and with the genteel poverty of her home life, and, inevitably, boys. Through all this there is her ongoing compulsion to write, the mark of all professional writers. (Coe does not own volume 4, which covers the years 1927-1931.)
    Incest and Nearer the Moon by Ana´s Nin. How did the young Nin--articulate, passionate, inquisitive, and reflective--become this irritating sexual Olympian (albeit still articulate and passionate), pretty well oblivious to significant things going on around her? Reading the "unexpurgated" diaries alongside those that were published in her lifetime reveals some interesting editing decisions.
    The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Well-known data about our present discontents and uncertain future come alive in a representative series of personal stories, with conclusions left to the reader. It's about the survival struggles of individuals, pitted against corrupted institutions (economic as well as political) in a broken system. The winners (Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey) seem to triumph through showmanship; more touchingly, ordinary men and women might get 19 out of 20 things right but it's the 20th that keeps them down, and once you start to fall there's not much left to stop you.
    Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker J. Palmer. A truly exceptional work. Palmer manages in a relatively small book both to present a new vocabulary for discussing and participating in politics while keeping the language accessible and the tone passionate. Realistic about contemporary American politics, but also hopeful and encouraging about the future.
    Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty. Piketty tries to bring economics to the people, and for the most part he succeeds, as long as the people are patient and willing to put in the time. Well might they be, for Something Scary is happening to the U.S. economy, which Piketty seeks to explain and for which he even provides a potential remedy. I read this book over a period of several weeks, never more than a chapter a day, and found at that rate I could digest and appreciate his arguments, technical though they be.
    Diary of My Songs by Francis Poulenc. Not a diary of daily life but a series of instructions, compiled over a period of nearly twenty years, on how his songs should be sung (inspired by a woman he heard "caterwauling" on the radio in November 1939). I don't know much of Poulenc's music but am inspired to find some to listen to. The English language editor promises that with certain of Poulenc's songs "Paris returns in a flash... the stamping ground of Cocteau and Picasso, the site of Max Jacob's slum and Marie-Blanche de Polignac's salon."
    The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. Contemporary story of a young woman trying to figure out pieces of her life story that don't add up. Characters are well-drawn, most memorably the Russian immigrant-bibliophile Humphrey Ostropoler. The scrambled chronology of the book suits the confusion in her own mind.
    Lila (Gilead #3) by Marilynne Robinson.
Same setting and characters as "Gilead" but much darker. The backstory of the preacher's wife, Lila, is unsparingly told. By doing so Robinson also highlights the sweet and miraculous elements of her story: it's a sort of fairy tale ending but the edge to the story does not let us forget it's made with and by flawed, broken people.
    What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel notes the monetization of "almost everything," and argues that's sometimes but not always good. He uses highlights from the last decade to show market-oriented thinking breaking down social unity, eroding civic norms and virtues, and altering how individuals relate to each other. Even academic inquiry is subject to market power, as with corporate-produced materials for strapped public schools. Nice chapter on baseball, where everything seems to be up for sale.
    Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41 and End of a Berlin Diary by William L. Shirer. Shirer, a Coe College graduate, wrote about the rise of Nazi Germany from a front-row seat as CBS radio correspondent in Berlin. It makes for compelling reading, with day-to-day details of life in Germany, not to mention the rigors of early trans-Atlantic broadcasting, and frustration with the slowness of international response. End of a Berlin Diary (1947) bookends the war, celebrating the Allied victory but with considerable anxiety about the future.
    The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. Collection of essays published twelve years ago which show their age. At her best her insights are exceptional: ruminating on patriotism in title essay, or on not having the feelings you're supposed to have at Gettysburg or a family Thanksgiving (first two essays). There's way too much bitterness over the outcome of the 2000 election, which we've long since ceased to care about, and her self-deprecating humor gets tiresomely repetitive.
    Life is a Wheel: A Passage Across America by Bicycle by Bruce Weber. For a guy who says he's too busy concentrating on traffic to ruminate while he's riding, this book contains a lot of rumination. It's really three books in one: descriptions of America and the people he meets as he rides across it, reflections on his life and relationships personal and professional, and (implicitly) thoughts about solitude. Thought-provoking without a clear agenda.
    Protestant Worship and Church Architecture by John F. White. 50 years old but still valuable introduction to church design and its relevance to worship. Focusing on floor plans, White is gentle but so persuasive the reader can't help by the end feeling passionate about church floor plans.

Books I read in 2011-2013
Books I read in 2010

    Be it ever so humble, there's no place like Home!

last update 10/20/15