Backstage Pass 

DiCaprio, Bon Jovi, and Kerry--Behind the Scenes

It was the largest gathering for any Kerry campaign rally thus far. By noon on Friday, event planners closed the gates at Waterfront Park and began turning away enthusiastic--but late--supporters who came to see presidential hopeful John Kerry wrap up his two week, coast to coast barnstorming tour.

"By plane, train, and bus, we have traveled America," Kerry told the rambunctious crowd. After wrapping up the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Kerry traveled to a few dozen cities, stirring up excitement for his presidential bid. Sure, the events may have been as emotionally contrived as a Disney movie. Even so, when the three tour buses lumbered through Waterfront Park, with dramatic music blaring, even the most cynical reporters got goose bumps.

In a matter of weeks, Kerry has grown from being the "Anyone But Bush" candidate to a politician who is forcefully asserting a platform and invoking the noble sensibilities of prior American presidents. Though his speeches have been surprisingly strident, on Friday he showed a flare of humor and warmth.

But will this be enough to win in November? What did Friday's event really tell us about the Kerry campaign? Should we be worried about the preparedness of Democratic event planners who only provided 22 Honey Buckets for an expected 40,000 attendees?

The Mercury is happy to provide this backstage peek of last week's rally.

The Battle of the Stars

Looking smart, if not uncomfortably hot, in his straight-leg blue jeans, faded denim shirt, and blue hat, Leonardo DiCaprio was the attendant celebrity. Ever since Clinton successfully teamed with Meryl Streep and Arsenio Hall, the Democrats have desperately tried to tap into Hollywood. There are two obvious benefits to this approach: One, it provides a ready source of campaign financing and, two, in a celebrity-giddy culture, star fucking is the superhighway to popularity. DiCaprio was a blatant attempt to woo the young female demographic.

Yet in spite of his pretty boy looks, DiCaprio carries more than enough political heft--he's helped to establish a foundation in Southern California that encourages sustainable development. At Friday's event, he talked plainly about renewable resources. (One of Kerry's campaign promises is to move at least 20 percent of the nation's energy sources to renewable power like solar and wind by 2020.)

And although DiCaprio clearly knows his material and provided a well-reasoned speech, his delivery was as flat as if he were reading from cue cards.

"Please, I beg of you, let's not squander this opportunity," he squeaked. While these sweet whispers may work when cooing into Kate Winslet's ear, more is needed to rouse thousands into action at a political rally.

NAME THAT TUNE

In 1992, the Clinton campaign so successfully branded Fleetwood Mac that it's nearly impossible to hear "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" without picturing Bill Clinton throwing open his arms to welcome his wife, Al Gore, and the world onto the stage. Their choice in music was keen--reclaiming an anthem from the '70s, and the Baby Boomer generation as their own. Moreover, the song's message was encouraging, dogmatic, and optimistic.

The Kerry "Believe In America" campaign has adopted Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" as their theme. At the Democratic National Convention and likewise at Friday's event, Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" was heard repeatedly. It's a rousing song with an appropriate storyline--a defiant young man trying to encourage his friend to fight their bland circumstances and ennui. Yet, for a party that's focusing on "optimism," the Kerry campaign has chosen a song that clearly sounds defensive.

Bon Jovi, Ambassador?

Kerry's campaign, working with MoveOn.Org, has roped in several prominent rock stars--Springsteen, REM, Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes, and the Dixie Chicks. Through October, these musicians have pledged to make appearances with Kerry or to host benefit concerts. Unfortunately, these shows will focus almost exclusively on swing states with more electoral votes than Oregon--like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. (For more information, check out moveonpac.org.)

Among these musicians, Bon Jovi is perhaps the least overtly political. While sidekick Richie Sambora strummed a two-chord chorus, Bon Jovi began his short set with some unfortunate political pontificating.

"How can we build firehouses in Iraq, when we're closing firefighters' houses in Oregon?" he asked, pandering to the firefighters' union that stood in force near the stage. It was a sentiment that overly simplifies foreign policy and smacked of isolationism. Probably the best outreach that America can do is to help build infrastructure in developing countries; such diplomacy is our best strategy for calming seething anger in the Middle East. Before Bon Jovi takes the stage again, the Kerry campaign may need to school him a bit more in international policy--but I have to admit, his rendition of "Dead or Alive" ROCKED.

All in the Family

Kerry's family members were perhaps the biggest distractions and disappointments of the day. As his daughter flitted in and out of the press section with no apparent purpose, Teresa "Buzzkill" Heinz Kerry rambled on about her childhood in South Africa. During her 15-plus minute speech in which she struggled to form a concise message, a female reporter from the Chicago Tribune sat next to me groaning, her head buried in her hands. To my left, a male reporter from the Los Angeles Times stared off into the distance.

"You've heard this before?," I asked.

"It's embarrassing," he replied.

At least in the press section, the votes were in: Teresa is no Hillary.

The Devil Made Him Do It!

While Kerry's forceful acceptance speech in Boston already had me smitten, it was the "devil horns" that really won me over. After hopping onto stage, he waved and shook hands with the crowd. Event planners had surrounded the main platform with union workers, war veterans, and firefighters. During this initial hoopla, one of the firefighters yelled something encouraging to him. Kerry smiled and raised his left hand, his index finger and pinky extended, and gave this man the unmistakable death metal hand wave of devil horns. That had to be a first.

Sure, it was a funny moment, but also a genuine one. We need to elect a candidate based on his policies and plans--at the same time, warmth and humanity have been sorely missing from the White House over the last four years. When Kerry retreated from the crowd and joined his entourage, he bear hugged DiCaprio and whispered something into the star's ear. They both laughed and then stood for a few minutes with their arms slung around each other, like two old school pals.

Unlike Democratic candidates of the recent past, Kerry looked like he was having some genuine fun.

New Talking Points, Please

Much of his speech on Friday was cut-and-pasted from his acceptance speech in Boston. This is understandable considering that Portland was the final leg on a two-week tour that began directly after the convention. He's hammering on a message he started in Boston about job creation and healthcare, while also trying to steal away some of the Republicans' thunder.

"We need to stop talking about family values," Kerry said again on Friday (as he had in Boston), "and start valuing families."

Friday's speech was largely a coda to the convention. And while his points hit home, Kerry needs to move on to new messages and sound bites soon.

Political Dividends

The "coincidence" of Bush's appearance in Portland and Beaverton on Friday was probably the greatest gift the Republicans could have given the Kerry campaign. TV footage and newspaper articles throughout the state compared the two candidates. Side by side, Kerry looked great. In terms of candor and excitement and photo ops, the Kerry campaign shamed Bush, who hosted closed, invite-only events that shunned the thronging masses.

Friday's rally could prove to be a watershed moment for the Kerry campaign--at least when it comes to winning Oregon's seven electoral votes.

by Phil Busse

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