MTV Rocks The Vote

A giant banner flying outside the new Capital City Brewing Co. just two blocks from the Capitol reads "Give Us Liberty or Give Us Beer!" Inside, however, there doesn't seem to be much choice about it: With an open bar and a wide variety of trendy beers on tap, liberty tonight is no match for a brewski.That's not to say that liberty, as well as related concepts like freedom, equality and justice, aren't getting a lot of airtime. At the Washington benefit for the MTV cheerleader-for-democracy movement "Rock the Vote," earnest platitudes flow like water. Unfortunately, as the sign maintains, this is a beer crowd.These are the political leaders of tomorrow. Shelling out $19.96 each, a sellout crowd that just might include every single ex-student council president in Washington has trooped over from their congressional staffer jobs to the party. They have come to join the chairs of the College Democrats and College Republicans of America, plus a wide variety of important ex-officio honorary sponsor types, to raise money for a truly worthy cause: corporate entertainment giant MTV. More specifically, their entry fee (all of it, since a variety of corporate givers like the Washington Post Co. and Coca-Cola are footing the event's bill) will help the music-video channel send its next generation of Tabitha Sorens around the country and across the cablescape, scaring up voters, activists and believers in democracy.But if you've come to the benefit, as I have, expecting to find easily lampooned MTV activism, you're in for a major disappointment. Rock the Vote may wax Jeffersonian before its target audience of glazed- eyed Beavises and Smashing Pumpkins-addled Butt-Heads, but back where politicos have the home field advantage, there's brutal honesty. As I am told by everyone from the College Republican with the "Families for Dole" sticker to the don't-quote-me guy who also confides that there are a lot of cute boys here, "It's a huge party!" It's a party that's pretty detestable from the git-go. By 5:30, the scene is abuzz with what look like dozens of clean-cut kids -- boys with flannel shirts and ties, a sprinkling of white baseball caps. Like members of the social committee before the high school dance, they put the finishing touches on the room. Some young Republicans nail up a College Republicans poster. Classic rock blares: MTV may be the evening's cause clbre, but music-wise we're back in the eight-track era. Or, at least, that hit of the eight-track era that was re-released on CD when Reagan was president.That's not to say other '90s protocols aren't being observed. You're as likely to get a Budweiser here as you would be at a Mormon retreat. And there's a touchy-feely quality to the partygoers' conception of politics that could only hail from the Clinton era. Even the Dole supporters in the crowd would no doubt be well-prepped to answer the memorable MTV boxers-or-briefs question on their man's behalf.But the question never comes up. This is largely because everyone knows the answer -- that is, because everyone is already committed to one party or the other. "Oh, yeah, everyone here is political," says Dole campaign youth director Corey McDaniel, who sits at a table covered with Republican stickers. He estimates that the crowd is evenly divided between members of Team Clinton and Team Dole, though other than the occasional button there's little way of telling them apart among the sea of white faces.The partygoers stream into the room through an entryway, where they are offered an array of apolitically political stickers, buttons and paraphernalia. A promotional button for a politics Web site run by the Washington Post is connected to a door prize, which means everyone is wearing one. From a distance, it looks as if the buttons read "Vote for Politics." This seems appropriate.So everything moves along much as you'd expect it would in a room full of free beer and after-work ex-frat kids. People drink. People schmooze. Cards change hands. When pressed by interloping reporter types, some people profess great admiration for Rock the Vote and the work it does. Some -- particularly Republicans -- express great confidence that MTV's voter registration by benefit-concert approach will help them out come election time. But most of them don't even bother. Instead, they pick through the sushi and sausages, and have fun. But the responses are on cue when the crowd is addressed by their powerhouse hosts, the head of the College Democrats (Republicans, boo!; Democrats, cheer!) and the head of the College Republicans (Democrats, boo!; Republicans, cheer!).They get a chance to do it again when the guests of honor, Reps. Dick Gephardt and John Kasich, take the mike. Their speeches, of course, are indistinguishable, full of praise for voting and participating and youth and enthusiasm and "issues," whatever those may be. And beer. The fellows then exit, stage right, back to the VIP room (the high school dance analogy continues: the chaperones have a room where they can retreat). The stage is turned back over to the evening's main entertainers, the Amendments, a band of five Republican representatives who charge ably through classic-rock standards -- "Mustang Sally," "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Takin' Care of Business." "Who'd have thought Congress could play Bachman Turner Overdrive!" exclaims cigar-smoking think-tank employee Adam Mierer.MTV's "Choose or Lose" bus was advertised as the main attraction of the evening. But by the time it finally rolls in, it's clear that no measly bus stands a chance against an evening of Capitol Hill scamming. It's too bad, because for people who aren't going to get lucky tonight, the vaguely psychedelic daze conjured up by the bus might be the next best thing. With six wheels and just as many shades of red, white and blue, it is a 110-foot rolling billboard for democratic hipness. Liberally sprinkled with pro-participation exhortations by everyone from George Santayana to George Foreman, the bus aims to succeed not so much by showing the power of the vote as by showing the powerful people who vote. Or at least say they do. Or at least say something that sounds sort of like it's about voting. Needless to say, those being quoted -- Run DMC, Fiorello La Guardia and Ben Bradley (sic), among others -- run the widest possible gamut of ages, races, genders and professions. The quotations appear in a variety of font sizes. I'm not quite sure what is meant by the notion of postmodern pastiche, but I think this must be it.Even if there's no MTV excitement, there is major intrigue between sips of microbrews. It seems the Republican attendees have done a much better job of showing up with political stickers than their Democratic arch rivals. The Republicans are out in force, dispensing blue "Dole" stickers to any and all. Some witty Democrats have countered by rearranging the letters on the GOP stickers from D-O-L- E to O-L-D-E. Others have panicked. "My friends had to call for stickers," says William Smith, who is wearing a Democratic "Win in 96" sticker.Camp Clinton seems to have responded with a rush delivery. It's not clear why it matters who wears what stickers in a scene where everyone's loyalties are already declared. But amid the beer and Republican rock, the machinations go on.It is in those machinations that the key lies, ultimately, to understanding the young Washington politicos and MTV's hype-tech operators. For the whole deal to work -- Beltway politics, the congressional staffer professional ladder and Rock the Vote -- the illusion must be created that somewhere, somehow, there are thousands and thousands of "grass roots" people marching to and fro, confronting each other, fighting for the cause. And so here in the beer-aided comfort of political careerist Washington, the very people who know better than anyone else that the whole Choose or Lose gig is just a pantomime nonetheless act out a simulacrum of politics for themselves.What are the stakes? For the participants this evening, they can hardly be which team wears more buttons. A self-definitional game is going on, too. As the differences blur ever more between Clinton and Dole, and between Democrats and Republicans, illusions of action, passion and gravitas are all the more important as far as the meaning of the partygoers' lives is concerned.And for the culture-meisters of MTV, it may well be the same thing in reverse. In the entertainment industry, relevance is a priceless commodity. On Choose or Lose specials, video footage of speechifying political types and concern-expressing young'uns extends the cable network's reach into a region of life deemed by someone else to be relevant. It all happens here -- slam-dancing and participatory democracy. The distinctions fade. And even if the wonkish TV segment costs a lot of money or doesn't get good ratings, it creates the illusion of drama. And that sells.Like the Young Democrats and Young Republicans, moving through a choreographed faux-politics dance, Choose or Lose asks us to rock the vote without asking who wrote the song. On TV--where the network, after being criticized for a pro-Clinton slant, is now on its best bipartisan behavior--and at the fundraiser, where twentysomethings swill non-partisan beer, the music may not always be House Republicans playing BTO. But in this realm, politics is but play-acting and the song is still called takin' care of business.

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