WASHINGTON -- John Kerry must have been a very happy man Thursday afternoon, watching from a Secret Service-secured area as a couple thousand female college students, scantily clad in their spring outfits, crowded the outdoor stage at George Washington University to hear hero-of-the-young Howard Dean officially endorse him.
The event was billed as a "Unity Day" and came with the tagline "Change Starts Here." I assumed this meant Kerry's campaign would become at least a tad more interesting, or that maybe he would experiment with a different stump speech, but, alas, no dice. Kerry worked the same old lines he's been belaboring for the last year and a half.
Still, change was in the air. Now the audience is required to pass through a metal detector to hear him speak. It's almost enough to make you forget that two short months ago Kerry had to beg people to ride around with him on his bus in New Hampshire, bribing them with free bowling and chili. Then there are the new men in black in the crowd, on the roofs, and in the path of Kerry's snowboard. And now Kerry can steal Howard Dean's lines with a clear conscience.
The image of the campaign is being guarded more closely now that primary season is over. Kerry volunteers busied themselves confiscating homemade signs that read "Burn the Bush," "AIDS is Real, Bush is Fake," and "Like Father, Like Son: One Term President" at the door.
These sharpie-scrawled slogans did not have the same photogenic qualities as the official Kerry and Dean merchandise. T-shirts, signs, and long bright red air-filled "Bush Whackers" were handed out in liberal quantities. People seemed happy enough with the trade-off. At one point, a group of young men took turns shouting "You're Bush!" at one of their friends and then whacking him silly.
Someone across the way hung a banner out a dorm window with a big green pot leaf emblazoned on it. "Legalize it. Subsidize it," the sign read.
Wild cheers erupted.
AFTER SITTING FOR MORE than an hour in the sun -- paranoid, wondering if the Secret Service agent on the roof was staring at me -- I breathed easier when a GW official finally kicked off the well-rehearsed spectacle.
He began by insisting that the university doesn't take sides in the election and would be happy to host George W. Bush as well. A round of deafening boos followed, and the official quickly finished up and hurried off the stage.
Because it was "Unity Day" for young Democrats, too, Ari Mittleman of Generation Dean and Adam Zwerner of Students for Kerry were up next. Unity to these two young budding pols meant being as hideously boring as their heroes. A sample:
"Adam, John Kerry is a true American patriot who fights day in and day out for the people of our generation," Mittleman nearly shouted.
"Ari, you know, Howard Dean really reinvigorated the Democratic Party," Kerry's young flack said.
On cue, Dean bounded on stage, rolled up his sleeves, and dove in. After admitting that Kerry won fair and square, the former governor of Vermont quickly worked back to his favorite topic -- himself.
"In the end," he said, red faced, fist in the air, "it is Generation Dean voting for John Kerry that is going to send George Bush back to Crawford, Texas, where he belongs." Then, Dean, who spent the Vietnam War as a self-confessed "ski bum," asked the crowd who they trusted more with national security: a bunch of guys who had "never served a day in their lives" or "a guy who served honorably and has three Purple Hearts?"
Essentially, Dean had just invalidated his own candidacy, but no one seemed interested in pointing it out. He then grabbed the mike, and did his best high school cheerleader impression. "KERRY, KERRY, KERRY!" he shouted, and the crowd joined in.
Dean then introduced "the next president of the United States -- John F. Kerry." Kerry clearly did not generate the same level of applause and whooping as Dean did. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Kerry took shelter in the groveling he has become so well known for.
"I was just so wrapped up in what Howard Dean was saying," Kerry said, "I almost came up here and said, 'Howard Dean for President.'"
It didn't get any better. Kerry thanked Dean for starting a "conversation with America." He then stole the former governor's well worn slogan, "You have the power," and then, pointing at Dean, asked the crowd, "Who am I quoting?" It was an easy question, but the students answered it with spunk.
AFTERWARDS I WALKED among the crowd and watched about 40 people holding Bush/Cheney signs be engulfed by crowds of obscenity-shouting Kerry supporters. When the Bushies refused to budge, the crowd flew into a strange verbal rage, acting like Democratic faithful seized by the spirit of liberalism, speaking in tongues.
"Bush hates Jews!" "WASPs for Bush!" "Bush is in bed with Bin Laden!" Some wound out very creative blue streaks. There was no arguing tax policies with these lunatics.
I asked one very sensible-looking girl watching the proceedings with a horrified look on her face why she came out.
"It was a good excuse to get out of class," she said with a shrug.
So I inquired if she had been following the election.
"I haven't been really, not until now," she said. "I mean, I know we should get rid of Bush. I guess it doesn't really matter who does it."
I noticed a little guy in a Dean shirt staring intently at me, shifting his weight excitedly from one foot to the other. I asked him if he was okay with Dean being on the Kerry bandwagon now.
"Who cares?" he replied, and issued a manic little laugh. I thought about asking a follow-up question, but then took another look at him, and thought better of it.
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