The stories they told weren't necessarily political, but the thirteen writers who took the podium on Thursday night at the "Where's My Democracy?" fundraiser were certainly speaking out. The readings, organized by the political action committee Downtown for Democracy (D4D), brought more than 1,000 New Yorkers to the Great Hall at Cooper Union for a rollicking night of literary culture that doubled as a Beat Bush rally. Over the course of several hours, an A-list roster of authors--including Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, Michael Cunningham, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates and Colson Whitehead, among others--presented unpublished short stories and excerpts from novels in progress while drumming up support for this year's Democratic candidates.
Founded last summer by a progressive group of arts professionals and activists, D4D has put together a calendar of high-profile readings, concerts and auctions designed to mobilize young voters, particularly in key swing states. "Our basic strategy is to raise money through cultural events in Democratic states like New York and then spend it in swing states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the election will be decided," said D4D political director Erik Stowers. "We're focusing on campuses and cultural communities, independents and greens, and trying to target them with voter-registration drives, ad buys and get-out-the-vote campaigns."
The plan seems to be working well so far. More than 80 percent of the contributors at D4D's kickoff event, an art auction held in November that raised more than $130,000, were first-time donors. Thursday night's crowd, accordingly, included a mix of professionals in suits and younger, hyper-literate members of the creative community. "I came because I think Bush is completely out of touch with most Americans, and because I wanted to see Dave Eggers," said Kelly Sanders, a 33-year-old clothing designer.
Catering to its crowd, the program struck a fine balance between lighthearted entertainment and sober pleas for political engagement. Jonathan Safran Foer, the 27-year-old author of Everything Is Illuminated, helped to bring the writers together and welcomed them to the stage as the evening's affable emcee. "It is a universally accepted fact that Democrats are smarter than Republicans," he began, listing lovemaking, the use of chopsticks, gymnastic ability and all things cultural as liberal strong suits. After a boisterous round of applause, Foer got down to business. "But if Democrats are so much better at everything, then why have Republicans had so much more political success of late?" he asked. "As demonstrated in the last presidential election, there are more of us than them. So what gives? The answer is: Not us, not enough."
Surprise guest Salman Rushdie kicked things off with a hilarious parody of Dr. Seuss titled "How the Grinch Stole America." Most of the other readers, however, chose to share more personal stories. Lou Reed recited a poem dedicated to his old friend Andy Warhol; Franzen wove together three short pieces about divorce; Paul Auster read the first few pages of his upcoming novel, tentatively titled The Book of Human Folly, about a mordant man who "was looking for a quiet place to die." Eggers scored the night's biggest hit with a comic monologue in which a father explains to his daughter how he and his wife single-handedly transformed the United States into an energy-independent utopia. "I never mentioned the lobbyists, about when we had them all deported?" the father asks. "The idea just took off. People loved it, and Greenland welcomed them warmly."
During an hourlong intermission, friends and patrons who donated at the $500 level were "ushered up to heaven" to mingle with the authors over champagne and hors d'oeuvres. "I'm just here because I thought it was a cool event," said Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org's campaign director, as he scanned the reception area for his literary heroes. "I think it's important to get artists and writers working on this campaign, and it's great that they're creating a culture where it's OK to spend money on politics. We're going to be so far outspent in this election that we have to make every penny count."
Indeed, the immensity of the Bush campaign's war chest will present a formidable challenge to Democrats as the election approaches. In that sense, Thursday night's other high-profile fundraiser--a $1,000-per-plate, all-you-can-eat barbecue held in Washington, DC, and attended by such heavyweights as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore--certainly contributed more to the bottom line. Nevertheless, the youthful energy that was circulating at Cooper Union was significant, especially if it proves to be contagious in the next several months. "I couldn't be more pleased with how everything came out," said novelist, critic and D4D volunteer Dale Peck afterward. "The excitement didn't feel familiar, it didn't feel like the same old rallying cry from a bunch of people who have done this a bunch of times. There's an overwhelming sense of urgency about getting Bush out of office, and every new person who gets involved makes a difference."