Hitting up hipsters

The draws at this political fundraiser were a novelist, a cable show comedian and an indie New Jersey band. And -- oh yeah -- the broad-shouldered son of John Kerry.

By Rebecca Traister
Published August 13, 2004 4:06PM (EDT)

New Yorkers throw lots of different kinds of political bashes. There are the businessmen who will pour out of dingy offices in three weeks to greet the onslaught of Republicans with open arms; then there are the galvanized protesters who will gather to shout them down. The wealthy worship at the feet of the Clintons in the sandy enclaves of the East End, while Harlem residents cheer them at the Hue-Man bookstore on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

On Thursday night, a group of city dwellers still fresh to the thrill of political ardor was testing its wings with its own brand of party. A crowd larded with filmmakers, publicists, comedians, journalists and lots and lots of screenwriters had gathered at Spirit, a nightclub on the far west side of Manhattan, for "The End of an Error," a Kerry benefit organized by a crowd of young political and media machers.

The packed club was full of people far from impoverished but at least a decade away from serious wealth, still hovering between Banana Republic and Marc Jacobs, between Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose. No longer assistants, but not yet executives, they live on the edges and in the outer boroughs of Manhattan, and had all paid somewhere between $35 and $250 to listen to their own local heroes sing and riff and rant to them about ousting George W. Bush.

They were also all freezing their asses off. Spirit, typically cooled to a temperature designed to keep throngs of sweaty dancers from bursting into flame, was proving to be a chilly space for a rally. The crowd was still shifting around, getting drinks, grabbing friends by the arms, sorting out wristbands and trying to talk their way into the VIP balconies as the evening began. Rep. Anthony Weiner was urging them to "reach out to our brothers and sisters who say there's no difference between Kerry and Bush and tell them that that's simply not true." When Weiner concluded his time on stage by saying "Get used to saying it: President John Kerry!" there was applause; the crowd had begun to coalesce.

It focused even further when an unlikely cheerleader, the geeky-hot Jonathan Lethem, leapt onstage. "I am a novelist," he explained by way of introduction. "I'm not a musician, not a poet, not a comedian, not a funny person." Novelists, he said, are known for their "reflectiveness, tolerance for ambivalence ... their tendency to hesitate, reconsider, regret our choices." Noting his breed's "extreme sensitivity to sunlight and absolutism," Lethem claimed that when presented with a petition, his colleagues are generally "more likely to revise it than sign it." But, he said, he and his brethren "are emerging from their holes ... [and] putting Kerry signs in their windows," though he admitted that that may also be about blocking more sunlight.

"Like the Lorax, I am here to speak for the novelists," continued Lethem, building up a head of bespectacled steam. "This time, it's not only the poets who are filled with passionate intensity, not only the rock stars, not only the comedians. This time, even the novelists are filled with passionate intensity. And when you have roused even the novelists to the barricades against you, I am here to suggest that your days are truly numbered."

Despite his claim that he was not a funny person, Lethem's exhortation was actually pretty good -- in a self-referential way tuned perfectly to his audience. It was followed by an inscrutable appearance by "Saturday Night Live" comedian Rachel Dratch, who played a cello and howled out one verse of what we're pretty sure was Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," and then skedaddled off stage.

During a set by local Brooklyn band French Kicks, John Kerry's stepson Chris Heinz ambled into the VIP balcony area with some friends. Dressed in a black sweater and jeans, Heinz was tall and broad-shouldered. The son of Teresa Heinz Kerry and her late husband, Republican Sen. John Heinz, the 31-year-old Yale grad is an heir to the Heinz condiment fortune; he worked in New York finance -- doing time in the city's restaurants and clubs, as well as on Page Six and People's list of the 50 hottest bachelors -- before taking to the road with the Kerry campaign full time.

"I'm going to talk to him," said Gabrielle Lipson, a 31-year-old lawyer and one of the event's hosts. A few minutes later she was back, reporting that the Heinz had been a little suspicious of her attentions. "I had high hopes, but he was a little aloof," she said. Her sally -- "This is the VIP area; what are you doing here?" -- was met, she reenacted, with a tight, over-his-shoulder smile. But no matter, Heinz was soon on stage himself.

"New York is behind the Kerry-Edwards campaign," he said appreciatively to the hollering crowd. He urged them not to let their involvement end there. "Think of yourselves as ATMs," he cracked, quickly reassuring that he was kidding and urging the audience to consider the swing states. Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, he pointed out, were all places accessible to New Yorkers by bus. "I'll leave you with three words of inspiration," he said. "Preemptive war, John Ashcroft, the Supreme Court."

Chatter later in the night among party organizers was that Heinz had threatened to use his time on stage to do a mime routine -- and even demonstrated the rope-pull and the glass box backstage -- but that he'd been talked out of it. Organizers were also marveling at the way the crowd had greeted popular New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who followed Heinz on stage, as if he were Mick Jagger. Or at least Jack White.

It was true. There was feet-stomping and fist-pumping when Spitzer appeared. And he loved them right back, telling them how great it was "to see another generation get involved in politics." Spitzer pointed out that all of the great political movements of the last century -- labor, feminism, civil rights -- had all been led by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, and that "they all began with folks like you."

Spitzer was followed by John Wesley Harding, who sang a song called "Ace in a Spider Hole" about a terrorist who would be caught and presented "for dissection/ just before the election." Its chorus was "Watch the votes roll in." "SubUrbia" playwright and performer Eric Bogosion lost the crowd a bit with his spoken-word riff about revolution, personal freedoms and enfranchisement. But they roared back into action for one of the night's biggest draws, "Daily Show" comedian Lewis Black.

Black, who at one point during his performance said that he doesn't get asked to a lot of political benefits because he's "considered kind of a fucking loose cannon," took swings at just about everybody on the cultural and political landscape. "If you have any friends who are planning to vote for Ralph Nader," he began, "tell them to just kill themselves." He quickly moved on to Janet Jackson's exposed Super Bowl breast: "Congress, who you can't get to do anything," he said, "stopped on a dime and spent a whole day looking at that tit. They said it was shocking. You know what would have been shocking? If when he had ripped her clothes, a lion had jumped out of there and eaten some of the dancers. Then you might want to give counseling to the kids on Monday morning."

According to Black, the great lesson of Ronald Reagan's funeral was that "less is more."

"When you want to honor the dead," he said, "you don't go on a week's tour with the body," suggesting that by the end of the late president's official funeral, "they were basically taking it from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart -- if you view the casket, you get six things of Bounty." Black also launched into a particularly risky -- and difficult to relate -- joke comparing Condoleezza Rice testifying before the 9/11 commission to a yapping miniature dachshund.

Event organizer and film producer Jake Abraham appeared to announce that the event had already raked in over $110,000, and to introduce the evening's finale -- and the big entertainment draw -- Hoboken band Yo La Tengo. The well-lubed crowd of newborn activists swayed happily as front man Ira Kaplan jumped up and down to "Big Day Coming."

When the first song was done, Kaplan said in a tone that may or may not have been ironic, "It's always been a dream of ours to do a show with Eliot Spitzer."

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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