NEW YORK – An exuberant crowd of nearly 2,000 packed New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom on Tuesday night ostensibly to voice their support for Sen. John Kerry (search), but President Bush (search) had the dubious distinction of being the man of the hour.
From hipsters to professionals to aging hippies, the audience was as diverse as the talent on stage. Attendees paid $25 to $500 to watch performances by rocker Perry Farrell, techno-musician Moby, singer Natalie Merchant and hip-hop collective The Roots.
Host Janeane Garofalo provided salty commentary throughout, most notably referring to senior presidential political adviser Karl Rove (search) as a feminine hygiene product, evoking a Democratic fund-raiser two months ago in which comedienne Whoopi Goldberg raised Republican hackles by using Bush's name to refer to part of a woman's anatomy.
The event, sponsored by MoveOn.org, also unveiled a new TV ad campaign featuring such Hollywood stars as Scarlett Johannson, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Matt Damon. Several of the stars appearing in the ads were on hand as were other celebrity speakers, including actress Edie Falco, comedian Al Franken and actor and musician Kevin Bacon. But the longest and most enthusiastic standing ovation of the evening was saved for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
The series of ads that premiered at the event featured one directed by Rob Reiner called "The Mistake." It showed footage cut from an April 13 press conference in which Bush searches for an answer when asked to name any missteps taken during his administration.
"I'm sure something will pop into my head here," the president says, as the number of Americans who lost their jobs during his presidency takes over the screen.
Most of the ads ended with the tag, "George Bush: He's not on our side."
A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee (search) said he had not seen the ads, but criticized Kerry for indirectly endorsing them.
"The president has already asked John Kerry to denounce all of the commercials being produced by 527 groups," said Scott Hogenson. "If John Kerry is against some 527 ads, he should be against all 527 ads the way the president is."
The spots are certain to add to the controversy over unregulated independent political action groups — so-called 527s — a controversy that grew exponentially after a pro-Bush group began questioning Kerry's Vietnam service. The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth (search), which comprises former officers and sailors who also fought in Vietnam, brought so much negative attention to Kerry that his campaign began accusing the group of being a front organization for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. Under campaign finance law, candidates and 527 groups are not allowed to coordinate activities.
On Monday, Bush denounced all the advertising done by 527s, including the Swift Boat vets.
"That means that ad and every other ad. I don't believe we ought to have 527s. I think they're bad for the system," Bush said from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. "I frankly thought we'd gotten rid of it when I signed McCain-Feingold (search)" campaign finance reform.
On Wednesday, Bush election attorney Ben Ginsberg (search) resigned after admitting that he had advised the Swift boat veterans. The Kerry campaign subsequently slammed Bush for coordination efforts. In response, the Bush campaign named several Kerry campaign advisers who also represent 527s, including former Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, a member of the Democratic National Committee's Executive Committee and the Media Fund; and Joe Sandler, legal counsel to both the Kerry campaign and MoveOn.org.
Nonetheless, Bush's earlier comments earned the scorn of Franken, who chastised the president on Tuesday night for denouncing all 527s, but allowing one group, the National Federation of Republican Women (search), to hold a luncheon honoring first lady Laura Bush during the Republican National Convention next week.
According to representatives at Tuesday's rally, the first of the spots will hit the air "soon" and all of them will also be featured on the MoveOn.org Web site week by week up until the November election.
Presumably, the organization will need to adjust its ads after Sept. 3, when MoveOn.org and other 527s are prohibited by campaign finance laws from mentioning candidates' names in their ads.
While Tuesday's MoveOn event was full of attacks on Bush, Vice President Cheney and Rove, Democrats also expressed excitement about Kerry.
"The first time I heard John Kerry speak was in California about three or four years ago ... way before he was a candidate, and I was very impressed with him," said actress Illeana Douglas, who stars in one of the ads. "I've always wanted him to run for president. I think he's a very honorable man."
Steven Smith, a 37-year-old New Yorker, also said his enthusiasm for Kerry is separate from his distaste for Bush.
"I'm voting for Kerry because of his integrity, his service to our country," Smith said.
But others had a more difficult time explaining why Kerry should be president without comparing him to Bush.
"Kerry, the man, has a lot more respect for the Constitution than President Bush does," said talk show icon Phil Donahue. "I believe Kerry the man is not going to strut and allow hubris to move him and allow him to engage in a unilateral military action in a war that is underfunded, underequipped, undermanned, unconstitutional, unaffordable and unwinnable."
MoveOn is banking on the ads' star power to get Democrats pumped up about going to the polls this fall. But not all of the spots featured the rich and famous.
One of the biggest audience responses of the evening went to "Richard," an ad directed by Richard Linklater.
"I've always thought of myself as a pretty conservative West Texan. But there ain't no way I'm voting for George Bush this November," says a man presumably named Richard and sporting a ten-gallon hat. "These guys are taking care of their own, and they're so arrogant about it. ... They want to rule, which means if we question any of their policies they call us unpatriotic. You know, where I come from, that ain't right."
This focus on a "Kerry convert" was a hint of things to come. MoveOn.org is also preparing to launch another series of ads featuring more former Republicans who became Democratic voters. Similarly, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who is the keynote speaker at next week's convention, has been regularly updating his list of Democratic elected officials who support Bush.
While Hollywood has taken criticism from conservative circles for its widespread support of Kerry, celebrities at Tuesday night's event bristled at the notion that they should keep out of politics.
The pundits "always make fun of the actors in politics until they're governor or president, and then I guess it's OK," Douglas joked. "Laugh all you want, but we can be very influential in getting a positive message out."
The actress went on to say that celebrities have become increasingly important to balance out the negativity seemingly inseparable from today's politics.
Hip-hop producer Benny Boom, who directed one of the slickest ads of the lot, had an angry response to the notion that Hollywood's sometimes racy product disqualified artists from activism.
"If you make your money by making rap records that has nothing to do with voting," Boom said. "African-Americans have been here almost 400 years ... we didn't have the right to vote until the 1960s. So whether I go out and shoot a video for a guy that's cursing on his record has absolutely nothing to do with my right to vote and me exercising that right."
Several musicians and actors have come out for Bush, too, including singers Kid Rock and Jessica Simpson; rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, Christian rock band Third Day and country duo Brooks & Dunn; as well as actors Stephen Baldwin, Bo Derek and, of course, actor-turned-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.