Babylon by bus

MTV's traveling "Choose or Lose" vehicle brings politics -- along with music! celebrity! glamour! -- to America's disillusioned youth

By Dan Kennedy
Published September 23, 1996 7:07PM (EDT)

It's too bad the folks aboard the MTV "Choose or Lose" bus weren't invited inside to participate in the youth forum held here Sunday with U.S. Senate candidates John Kerry and Bill Weld. Because then we might have learned the answer to one of MTV's favorite, and most notorious, election-year questions, first posed to Bill Clinton in 1992: Boxers or briefs?

This is one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. Kerry, the incumbent, is a liberal Democrat who first came to prominence 25 years ago as the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Weld, Massachusetts's first Republican governor since the early 1970s, espouses a socially liberal, fiscally conservative philosophy that's proven popular with the suburban independents who'll decide the outcome. The race is a dead heat, and media ranging from "60 Minutes" to the Times of London are on hand.

The danger Sunday was that the candidates might make a desperate attempt to demonstrate their youth credentials to the 400 high school kids who'd been lured out to hear them. Given that Kerry has organized a fundraiser featuring Crosby, Stills & Nash and Peter, Paul & Mary (combined age: 335 years), and that Weld's musical hero is the obese geriatric drug abuser Jerry Garcia (deceased), the potential for a paradigm-shifting disconnect was immense.

Fortunately, the candidates managed to stay on message. And the students, a bright, polite bunch selected by their principals (that certainly explains the relative dearth of nose rings), rewarded them with intelligent, substantive questions that Weld later said, acidly, were better than those generally asked by the media.

For the kids, though, the real draw wasn't inside the auditorium, where two 50-something politicians were engaged in the novel act of explaining themselves to an audience not yet old enough to vote. It was outside, where the "Choose or Lose" bus was blasting alternarock, handing out pamphlets and taking the pulse of Boston's youth.

The bus, an immense vehicle that looks like a converted Greyhound, but that was actually custom-built for MTV, is ubiquitous this year, logging several thousand miles since January at college campuses, concerts, inner-city neighborhoods and both national conventions. Painted in Day-Glo colors, it's covered with quotations from political thinkers ranging from John F. Kennedy to Bob Marley. My favorite, from Bill Cosby, is something more than a few politicians would do well to heed: "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."

Presiding is Dave Anderson, a 26-year-old alumnus of the Clinton press office, pudgy, bespectacled, with thinning, closely cropped hair. He's wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt featuring images of two angels. "It's like Kerry and Weld," he jokes. "They're both praying."

We sit inside the bus at a massive round table, an MTV logo set in the middle in expensive-looking tile. Indeed, the bus looks like it cost a ton of money. Anderson informs me that my butt is parked in a spot that's hosted the lower halves of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Ross Perot. But what really has Anderson buzzing is a recent guest: civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, the most famous bus rider in U.S. history. "That was really cool," he enthuses.

The Weld-Kerry forum is the 105th event the "Choose or Lose" bus has visited this year. The message, says Anderson: "The entire process is cool and a good thing for the future." Fine, but couldn't "Choose or Lose" be seen as a cynical exercise in image-burnishing by our leading conveyor of junk culture? "I only hear that from reporters," he insists. Who other than MTV, he asks, is making a real effort to bring alienated teenagers and young adults into the political process?

Outside, they're lining up to take the computerized "Choose or Lose" survey, complete with a digital camera that photographs everyone who participates. The results show some interesting trends. For instance, 61 percent say they're unhappy with the direction the country is taking; 81 percent say politicians don't take the concerns of young Americans seriously. The top three issues: education, violence and crime, and free speech. Not surprisingly, participants are solidly pro-choice and pro-gay rights; perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, by a 58 to 17 percent margin they report they would be less likely to vote for a politician who criticized violence in music or on television.

The scene is loose, party-like, and the distracting music and cameras and lights betray the fact that most of the kids are drawn to the bus not because it will bring them closer to the political process, but because it will bring them closer to the glitz of MTV. Tricia Bhatia and Cate Reynolds, 17-year-old high-school seniors from the suburbs, have come with TV equipment to tape the event for their local cable station. They want to get on the bus, and Anderson invites them aboard. They look at the Todd Oldham-designed interior, with the fake leopard skin floor.
Bhatia's assessment of MTV's mobile youth-politics-revver? "It was so awesome."

Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy is the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix.

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