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A Welcome Diversion for Democrats

By Tina Brown
Thursday, February 26, 2004; Page C01

Jon Bon Jovi's last big gig was in front of 70,000 people at Giants Stadium, but on Monday night in Manhattan he was playing a dining room.

The occasion was a VIP donor party for John Kerry in an elegant apartment at the Dakota, that legendary West Side pile, hosted by TriBeCa Productions executive Jane Rosenthal, her husband and TriBeCa Film Festival co-founder Craig Hatkoff, and Infinity Broadcasting CEO John Sykes. Eighty big-ticket Democrats from Wall Street and the entertainment world got to mingle over cocktails with the front-runner. ("My advice to you, senator: Stay strong!")

Ralph Nader's return to the ballot gives Democrats something to fret about instead of Kerry's style. (Ron Edmonds -- AP)

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Bon Jovi, all in black and accompanied by a slim brunette on a sawing, melancholy violin, performed two of his own songs and a mellowed-out version of the cornball '60s protest anthem "Eve of Destruction." (Barry McGuire used to sing it in a histrionic testosterone croak that summed up everything humorless and earnest about the hippie protest movement; Bon Jovi's sweeter version was Joan Baez with boy hair.) "The Eastern world, it is explodin' / Violence flarin', bullets loadin'." Sen. Kerry, the man who would save us from this fate, waited for his turn at the mike with eyes half-closed, either from reverie or exhaustion, inhaling imminent nomination.

Everything he said was smart and civilized and well informed and left me with a vague longing for Howard Dean's scream (or perhaps just for McGuire's growling version of the song, which had that ticked-off Deaniac edge).

So maybe it's good news for the Democrats, after all, that Ralph Nader decided to run. In a culture geared to short-lived reality shows there is no way we could have tolerated the senator's noble visage and orotund orations for the next nine months without craving some nuthouse distraction. John Edwards makes a pleasant sparring partner, but he's so invested in niceness his boxing gloves are pillows. It's a welcome diversion from Bush-bashing for Democrats to spend a little time parsing Nader's saboteur pathology. Think of it as spring training.

There was something perversely thrilling about the old Raider's decision not to do the decent thing and lie low (or even help the side he claims to be on). In an era when every politician's naked ego is muffled by euphemism, his bloody-minded announcement was the political version of unprotected sex. He is willing to trash his legacy to make a point about process.

Crazy alpha-men in their waning years have a miserable time out of the limelight. One can only imagine the extent of Nader's simmering rage as he watched the rise of Dean on the flickering black-and-white TV in his Spartan apartment. Dean was a Park Avenue guy masquerading as an outsider, a Pied Piper to the young, like Nader was supposed to be. He was co-opting Nader's purity with his Internet fundraising. (All those kids in baseball caps!) It must have been hell for a man who spent heroic years slaying corporate dragons on his Underwood typewriter. Once Dean had exited left, Nader could go on "Meet the Press" and have his great Viagra moment. Dean was only a threat to the nomination; topping him required a threat to the election itself.

"Nader suffers from attention-getting deficit disorder" was the way former Clinton speechwriter Mark Katz put it to me in a phone conversation. "Ross Perot had it too. Except in this case the giant sucking sound is the critical vote."

One understands that anxiety, verified by exit-poll calculations of how Nader robbed Gore of New Hampshire and Florida last time, but it is better for the Democrats to fret about Nader than to start bugging Kerry to be more exciting. Many of them still stubbornly long for Clintonesque fireworks to make the earth move, but Kerry knows he is best selling statesmanship, not showmanship. The worry is that, redefined by success, he's been developing such stature and self-assurance that he may provoke the media to destroy his candidacy just for fun, as they did with Al Gore, another man in a toga who knew too much about things that matter. "I found that if you just added Gore's name to a speech it would make the joke ten percent funnier," Katz confesses in his new memoir, "Clinton and Me." And he was a Gore fan.

Without a new political streaker to distract us at regular intervals, Kerry could start to plummet like "The Practice" before James Spader came to the rescue. Now the senator can make sensible speeches but with the aura of danger, of Caesar entering the capitol with Cassius behind a pillar. The history of Kerry's campaign -- and his war -- has already proved that he comes vibrantly alive only when he is on edge. He doesn't get going till the going gets tough.

Of course there is always the small matter of George W. Bush. In recent weeks the president had deflated inside his inflatable flight suit. Even the iconic Thanksgiving image of the commander in chief holding aloft a turkey looked, after two muffed TV appearances, remarkably like a man holding a turkey. But the stump speech to Republican governors on Monday showed that speechwriter Michael Gerson had bounced back from the State of the Union debacle. On Tuesday, thanks to the mayor of San Francisco's nuptial offensive, the president seized the opportunity to change the subject from job loss to gay marriage. This one will prove thornier to Kerry than Ralph Nader. Veterans in drag, where are you?

©2004, Tina Brown

© 2004 The Washington Post Company