Celebs Of All Sorts Rock The Vote

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean opens the Democrats' Rock the Vote party in Boston Sunday, July 25, 2004, on the eve of Democratic National Convention.
By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer

As people wondered if former President Bill Clinton was here yet, and college-age guys scanned the chatting celebrities in the VIP area for actress Natalie Portman, the packed club of young Democrats cheered wildly.

Former Gov. Howard Dean was on stage, chopping his arm, yelling passionately. The 2,000-person crowd roars. Dean avows: "If you want a draft, vote for George Bush!"

It was that kind of a night at MTV's "Rock the Vote' party. It was a long night of drinking and rallying young party activists, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The party went late, past the normally fervent Boston bar time of 2 a.m., as Lauryn Hill finished the night with a brief two-song acoustic set, taking the stage just as bars normally close down.

Earlier that night, Dean's sleeves rolled up as always, the former Democratic candidate for president who six months ago led the field thanked the young audience for once supporting him and then asked them to help elect Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee to be president.

Dean tells audience, "There are two bills in Congress to reinstate the draft." He hammers home the issue. Then he asks the crowd how many have health insurance, and about four in ten raise their hands.

Boston's Avalon, a massive nightclub across from Fenway Park, was dancing to hip-hop, chanting, cheering, and loving the rally of glitterati-meets-politicians in true Democratic Party form. The event was a 'thank you' to the young Democrats volunteering and training to become the party's future grassroots activists.

It was also, though, a party to rally the voters aged 18 to 36. About 30 percent of that cohort voted in the 2000 presidential election, compared to about 50 percent of the general public. This was an MTV gig. And it had celebrities from across the spectrum.

"No group in America is so affected by the policies of this administration than young people because it's young people who are fighting and dying overseas in the war in Iraq," said Jerry Springer, jumping onstage and taking over the rhetorical reins as Dean wrapped up his speech.

The talk show host and former politician - dressed all in black - didn't have much trouble getting the attention of the crowd.

One saw him and excitedly nudged her friend: "Oh my God, it's Jerry!" A guy was no less impressed: "It's Jerry!" They all felt they know him.

Springer stood up and the crowd chants: "Jer-reee, Jer-reee, Jer-reee," in a low tone, swinging their arms.

Springer then asks for "two minutes of seriousness" and it is granted. Leaning forward, impassioned, shaking his right hand, he intoned: "It is middle America that needs help from the government. We need the public schools. We need the public transportation. We need the hope of the job."

"It's young people who can't afford to go to college anymore. They are settling for a two-year college or maybe no college at all," said Springer. "It is young people that are finding an economy that doesn't have jobs anymore. So the only way we are going to change that is if they go out and express their interests and then we will have a different result in the election."

It was vintage political Springer (a former Cincinnati mayor) and vintage Democrat as well. He laid out the argument for "big government."

Finally actress Natalie Portman appears - hair pulled back, elegant, in tight red pants, with the long dangly earrings seemingly requisite in Manhattan. She stumps for Kerry.

"We are so lucky to have a man who is so passionate, so intelligent, so experienced, so ready to change our country into what it can be," she says.

"We are going to party for Kerry, all night long. And by all night I mean 2 a.m. (this is Boston, after all); I want to see all you out there," Portman adds, unusually flirtatious for the often nervous actress, when speaking in public. "I hope to dance with all of you," she yells.

But Portman disappears soon after. The young men lament her as all talk.

Chants of "Bill" are heard. The audience wants ex-President Clinton. He's nowhere to be seen. It's nearing midnight. Bands are playing.

Red and yellow lights are crashing the room. Hip-hop blares as DJs take over. The Rev. Al Sharpton enters, soon to come on stage in support of the candidate he tried to beat in the primaries.

The young Democrats are drinking and talking shop. Polls show the top issues for ages 18 to 35 are: the war in Iraq and terrorism, the economy and jobs, health care and education.

"The celebrity is not about getting votes but energizing our volunteers," says Young Democrats Executive Director Jane Fleming, 31. "There is no way a young person is going to see a commercial on MTV or BET or anywhere and say, 'Oh, now I'm voting for a Democrat.' That's not how young people decide to vote."

Amber Tamblyn, 21, star of the television show "Joan of Arcadia" agrees. She explains the Democratic Party's celebrity ties as not "being obsequious."

"It's just that we're artists, we're progressive and nothing's going to change that," she asserts, crossing her arms, in all black. "Therefore you can never stick with someone who is going to keep their mind with security, because security of the mind is decay, you're not advancing."

Later, when Sharpton is on stage, whipping up the crowd, swinging his hips, waving his arms, people are not so serious. Sharpton smiling, swaying jovially, he asks the audience, "Are we ready to retire George Bush?" Enthusiastic screams follow.

Referencing the thousands of African Americans in Florida who during Election Day 2000 said they were dis-swayed or disallowed from voting, Sharpton riles the audience.

Dapper-suited as always, Sharpton tells them that it will be just like the James Brown song "Payback." And the DJ finds the track. It comes over the massive speakers. Sharpton dances some more.

This is the highlight of the evening. Mr. Clinton never showed up, even as the audience chanted for him, hoping he would. Lauryn Hill was too brief for the crowd to savor. Her acoustic set was poetic when they simply wanted her earlier Fugees' jams. Though with her Afro aglow in the stage light, sitting there strumming her guitar, she was stunning.

But Sharpton was the night's climax. Nearly midnight, he's dancing, jiggling his arms and hips. He tells the audience about James Brown, at 76 still the Godfather of Soul but not known to everyone in this young audience (and known quite well by Sharpton, his former road manager).

Then Sharpton, waving his arms higher in the air, says: "Come November, it's payback!" And the 2,000 young Democrats go wild.

They know exactly what he means.