Despite the frigid weather, the line to get into Hammerstein Ballroom snaked all the way down Manhattan's 34th Street the night of January 12. Vendors hawked shirts with slogans like "George W. Bush: Chicken Hawk in Chief" and "Faux News Channel: We Deceive, You Believe," along with blow-up dolls of Bush with a Pinocchio-length nose. Inside the building, the sold-out awards ceremony for MoveOn.org's "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad contest was in full swing.
The contest, a nationwide search for the best half-minute ad making the case against Bush's re-election, received 1,500 submissions, which were pared down to fourteen via 2.9 million online votes. The finalists were then judged by a celebrity panel that included political strategist Donna Brazile, comedian Margaret Cho, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, film director Gus Van Sant, musician Moby and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. The winning ad will be broadcast nationally during the week of President Bush's State of the Union address, on January 20.
More than 2,500 people, including elderly couples in matching berets, corporate types in power suits, socialites sporting fat strands of pearls, off-duty firefighters, and college students with blue hair--a "New York pupu platter," one attendee commented--packed the space, paying between $35 and $150 for tickets to hear speeches and music and to view the work of the fourteen finalists.
The evening opened with everyone rising for a loud Jimi Hendrix-inspired rock guitar version of the national anthem, played by Vernon Reid from Living Colour and Moby, on a stage draped with American flags.
Though much ink was shed on two purposefully inflammatory ads comparing Bush to Hitler, which were not among the finalists, the bulk of the entries focused on middle-of-the-road issues, trying to appeal to the broadest possible voting base. Most ads stayed away from personal attacks, with many reappropriating traditional Republican rhetoric, skewering the opposition on their free-spending ways, scattershot commitment to the truth and demonstrable lack of integrity. Michael Moore praised the finalists for "reaching those on the fence."
The winning entry, which was also the crowd favorite, "Child's Pay," is smart, beautifully shot, subtle and compelling--and probably has the most potential for widespread, mainstream appeal. The spot features young children working manufacturing and service-sector jobs--hauling trash, cleaning hotels, washing dishes, working an assembly line--with the tag line, "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"
The producer, Charlie Fisher, 38, an ad executive and registered Republican until the end of the first Bush Administration in 1992, initially feared that his ad "was nice--maybe a little too nice," but he went on to say, "You don't have to paint a bull's-eye on someone's forehead to be effective." He created his ad on a shoestring budget, paying his friend's children with $50 toy-store gift certificates.
The tone of the evening was one of pragmatism and patriotism, seemingly focused on repainting progressives as mainstream. Instead of appealing to an insular, cliquish sense of radicalism, Carrie Olson, COO of MoveOn.org, said the aim of the evening was to prove that "we are not liberal, hippie pinkos, we are your next-door neighbors, we are the center." Tellingly, Moby's mid-performance cry for civil disobedience won only weak applause compared with the rousing response to Al Franken's declaration, "I just want the media to know, everyone at MoveOn supports our troops."
Though the MoveOn constituency is often portrayed as young, postcollegiate "Deanie babies," the crowd proved politically diverse. Much of the audience still expressed support for Dean, but it was often tentative, measured and pragmatic instead of zealous.
Audience members seemed to be calculating their options, trying to handicap all the horses, while presenting a united front, ultimately willing to go with whoever is anointed Bush's opponent. Franken declared himself "undecided," saying only that he hopes "we can all coalesce behind whoever emerges as front runner." Even the flamboyantly contrarian Michael Moore played coy, refusing to say whom he might vote for in the primaries, revealing only that "when I do endorse someone, it's not because I think the other guys are bad or not worthy."
Comedy writer Lisa Gladstone's view seemed representative: "I've made years of mistakes voting on independents and longshots, with McCarthy and with Anderson. I felt like such an idiot, and I won't do it again now. I'd vote for Mr. Softee if I thought he could win."
Overall, the evening had a genuine sense of bonhomie and hope. When Chuck D, leader of the seminal rap group Public Enemy, performed their classic, "Fight the Power," most of the crowd was on its feet, awkwardly but happily dancing in the packed auditorium. And musical unity between boomers and youngsters was finally achieved at the end of the show, when Moby performed a cover of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." All of the crowd was standing, swaying or singing to this 1972 classic.
Pulling on his overcoat, preparing to leave, one attendee, Anthony Rodale, 38-year-old chairman of the Rodale Institute, an environmental nonprofit, was inspired: "The event reconnected me with being an American, with wanting to be an American, which was something that I had been trying to escape forever."