Late Friday evening at a sold-out Madison Square Garden fundraiser for Ralph Nader, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder looked out over the screaming crowd of 15,000 and called it "the most beautiful thing I have ever seen." In an age of political fundraisers and conventions that pander to minorities, glitter ostentatiously with Hollywood's influence and boast rhetoric toned down so as not to offend any corporate sponsors, Friday night did feel like a throwback. The four-hour Nader Rocks the Garden rally was sincere and proud. If anything, the night assured an audience of thousands, a great majority of them young people, that politicians can be real and impassioned -- in fact, not really like most politicians at all.
Nader and the Green Party had celebrated successful "super rallies" in Minneapolis and Boston, but the turnout still came as a surprise. Organized just two weeks before, the rally relied on volunteers who had a handful of days to pound the pavement, hand out flyers and drive decorated vans throughout Manhattan. Some supporters were concerned that $20 a ticket was too much -- other Nader rallies had charged as little as $7.
But nobody seemed to mind shelling out the extra bucks (it's New York, we're used to it) and when it came time to toss a few more into the cardboard donation boxes, folks wrote checks, thinned their wallets and emptied the change from their pockets.
It was a thoughtful, respectful audience: teenagers and the elderly, the man who has vowed to fast from Sept. 30 until Nader is allowed to debate, men still in their business suits, those sporting green sweaters or shirts declaring "I lived through an era of unparalleled prosperity and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" along with the ubiquitous "Bush and Gore Make Me Wanna Ralph," some with dyed green hair and multiple piercings and others looking as quiet and conservative as a devoted churchgoer. They got a lot more than just Nader for their money.
After a taped message from running mate Winona LaDuke (absent that evening), Phil Donahue strode onto a stage littered with potted trees and was greeted with a standing ovation. But the legendary TV talk-show host, whose show seemed dedicated to "healing," is now trying to incite his audiences. When blinding white lights would flash above him, he had the fleeting aura of an evangelical preacher who'd finally found his way.
He brought up a few of the central issues of the night: the need for universal healthcare, the evils of corporate mergers and the failed war on drugs. "If you fall while ice skating, you're covered in Canada because you're Canadian. Ask Canadians if they want to swap with us," he said. "The New York Times owns the Boston Globe. The Chicago Tribune owns the Los Angeles Times. How will they blow whistles on huge corporations when they themselves are one?" he asked. And, he said, "Ralph Nader wants to end the rootin' tootin' Wild West of the war on drugs."
He then introduced Mark Dunau, the Green Party's candidate for New York's contested U.S. Senate seat -- a small guy who punctuated his statements with an angrily pointed finger. "Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton are corporate lawyers. We need corporate lawyers as U.S. senators like we need a hole in the head," he said. Dunau, by contrast, is an organic farmer.
Before Donahue introduced Company Flow, a hip-hop group ("You look up a picture of hip-hop in the dictionary and you see a picture of me," the onetime daytime king joked) he attacked the notion -- promulgated by many Democrats -- that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. "One hundred million adults chose to stay at home in the last election. That's 51 percent. Ralph Nader is looking at that 100 million who stayed at home. In the last four years, 3 million people became eligible to vote. A vote for Nader isn't a vote for Bush. These are new voters."
Then lefty gadfly Michael Moore, donning a green baseball cap, came on stage to incredible applause and verve -- even the sleepy couple from Park Slope, Brooklyn, sitting next to me jumped from their seats at the sight of him.
"Last week in the debate, I think the moderator Jim Lehrer summed it up for me," Moore said. "Lehrer said, 'Welcome Governor Bush and welcome Vice President Bush ... uh ... I mean, Gore.'"
Moore laughed. "They agreed 32 times! Where's the debate? All that was missing -- other than Ralph Nader -- was, at the end, for Gore to go over there and plant one of those Tipper tongue-kisses on George Bush."
Referring to comedian and author Al Franken's interview with Bush in this month's Rolling Stone, in which Franken notes that Bush is proud of being able to name all 55 of his Yalie frat brothers, Moore said, "What I wanna know is: Could you name for us the last 55 people you executed?"
"With the lesser of two evils, you still end up with evil. What if we'd said, 'I'm afraid of King George. If we have a revolution, we might get a worse king'? Have some courage and some hope. Follow your conscience. Do the right thing."
Next, actress Susan Sarandon, looking hip in black leather pants, had the Garden turn the lights on and said, "Look at yourselves. Nobody talks about this." It was one of a few particularly exuberant moments when some enthusiasts laughed out loud with glee and others jumped up and down, cheering for themselves.
A dreadlocked Ani DiFranco -- "the female Ralph Nader, if you will, an independent" as Sarandon called her -- looked around and said, "How surreal is this? We have a huge American flag, we have a bunch of guys in suits, and it's good. It's good."
A girl in front of me held her cellphone in the air while DiFranco sang, screaming into it periodically.
Like most of the speakers and performers, Ben Harper kept it short and sweet. When he finished his songs, he simply stated, "You guys go out and vote now."
Then Donahue was back. "People are still paying green money to get in here. Don't look now ... Ralph Nader has sold out Madison Square Garden!"
At the silliest point of the evening, Republican Sen. Bob Roberts (aka actor, director and Sarandon's partner Tim Robbins) rolled out onstage in a wheelchair (paralyzed by an assassination attempt), an American flag wrapped around his legs, dark sunglasses concealing his obvious identity. "It is an honor to be here at this rally to support George W. Bush. Or as we call him in the locker room, 'Boy George.'" Then he strummed his guitar and dedicated two songs to his "brethren on Wall Street."
"What's wrong with compliance, with servitude," he sang, quite well actually. "This land is my land." The crowd booed and cheered in delight.
Patti Smith offered her rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in honor of the Green Party, "the Emerald City of our future." For a moment, she really did look like a wistful little girl from Kansas, and I half expected her to click her heels three times.
Bill Murray, in a blazer, green sweater and orange army pants, attempting to balance his irrepressible comedy with substance, began, "I thought I would be intimidated by the size of the room but then I realized I'm the guy" -- pausing for maximum impact -- "who plays Bosley in the new 'Charlie's Angels.' I have to use this power wisely." (Was that a corporatist plug?)
He then made a persuasive argument. "You tell the candidate you're going to vote for to come to my face and say my vote is a wasted vote. I don't think anyone who would say that should be in charge."
Eddie Vedder received an outrageous welcome from a group of young people who grew up on grunge. To see him amble on stage alone, guitar in hand, was both awe-inspiring and strangely comforting.
Vedder quietly, but powerfully, noted the significance of the night. "All these other rallies that Ralph's done haven't gotten attention. That's going to stop now. They can't ignore this."
He apologized for the $20 admission fee and for not having written a special song for Nader. Then he did something far more compelling: Explaining he would play a 30-year-old song "with the permission of the author," he struck the first chords of "The Times They Are A-Changin." Hand-held flames speckled the darkened arena.
By the time it was Nader's turn to speak, the audience, a tad emotionally drained, seemed to take a deep breath and gear down for another huge ovation. Nader, almost overcome with emotion, laughed and shook his fists and flashed the crowd his natural, goofy grin -- and got down to work. He is not the most eloquent speaker (although I didn't find him nearly as dry as I'd been warned) and, yes, even a brilliant man can mangle a syll-able or two.
But it's different. He's not trying to sound presidential or compassionate, or to sound like you or me. Mostly, he is so stocked with years of research and knowledge, and so caught up in his own inherent fervor, that sometimes his mouth can't keep up with the engines of his brain.
For those citizens there simply out of curiosity or out of debate fatigue, Nader's speech proved one of the simpler reasons why neither Bush nor Gore would want to debate him. He is simply too smart, too prepared, too relentless.
He spoke for a long time, as predicted. The last time he had spoken at Madison Square Garden was in 1979 at a No Nukes rally, after which no more nuclear plants were ordered in the United States.
"Welcome to the politics of joy and justice," Nader began. "We are building a historic, progressive political movement in America. No matter what people call themselves, the attitude is that they've lost control ... of even their own human genes to these giant corporations. It's time for Americans to take control of the commonwealth they already own."
He asked the crowd to imagine if TV stations had to pay rent for public airwaves; if they should let our public lands be "pillaged and plundered" by foreign interests; if political parties stopped acting like "Tweedledum and Tweedledee"; if big corporations didn't subvert the people's right to maternity leave, sick leave, proper public transit systems and adequate pensions.
Nader indicted the waste industry, the lead industry and the insurance industry. He indicted Democrats who voted for Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to join the Supreme Court, and pointed out that homelessness was up 200,000 in the last two years.
"The major public housing project in this country is building prison cells," he said.
He mocked the civil-rights efforts of Clinton and Gore: "I'm sick and tired of white politicians like Clinton and Gore going into black churches with that rhythmic cadence, pandering to the people."
After the crowd erupted in one of many chanting rounds of "Let Ralph debate," Nader began to nod. He rarely spoke directly about himself but at this point, he took the invitation to do so.
"I'll say one thing to you," he responded. "If I was on those three debates, this election would be a lot different, indeed."
He ended with a rousing call to untapped voters. "To the 51 percent of nonvoters who sat out: Don't drop out of democracy. We need you -- we even need your skepticism."
Celebrities and suits then sang along with Patti Smith as the intoxicated crowd roared and then began to disperse. Outside, energy spilled out onto Seventh Avenue.
"Overwhelming," said Elan Golomb, a New Yorker. "He had so much information and he tied it all together. You can put your head in the sand, but not for too long."
"If Ralph were in the debates, he would win," piped in the man beside her.
It's implausible that all 15,000 or so who gathered Friday will vote for Nader on November 7. But I do think that they all shared in the rare sentiment that Bill Murray expressed at the end of his speech: "I like being here. It feels good."