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 WMT Radio (600am) and local television,
and have been quoted in newspapers regarding:
read in 2015:
- 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)
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.)
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Books I read in 2011-2013
Books I read in 2010
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like Home!
last update 8/31/15