NEW YORK - They urged young people to "Vote for Change" and "Rock the Vote." They gave concerts and readings in "battleground" states. They made movies meant to turn Republicans into Democrats and the president into both a monster and a laughingstock.
Rarely have so many artists committed themselves to the defeat of a politician as Bruce Springsteen, Michael Moore and many others did in opposing George W. Bush. Now, with the president's re-election, those artists find themselves asking whether they made a difference and whether they would do it again.
"To me it was a huge success just for us to get young people into it," says hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who organized an all-star, get-out-the-vote campaign known as "Vote or Die."
Combs' voter drive, Springsteen's "Vote for Change" tour and Moore's anti-Bush documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," were the most visible signs of artists' involvement. Countless others joined in less public ways, helping to register voters and get them to the polls. Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning documentary maker, filmed a series of anti-Bush TV commercials featuring Republicans unhappy with the war in Iraq; he spent Election Day in Wisconsin urging Democrats to vote.
"You do certain things regardless of whether you know it's going to help," Morris said. "It might help and that's enough of a reason for doing it. By doing nothing, you're definitely not going to help."
Artists may have well made a difference. According to CIRCLE (the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement), a leading research organization, 4.6 million more young people cast their votes in 2004 than in 2000 and the turnout rate for 18-to-29-year-olds was 51.6 percent, compared with 47.9 percent in 1992, considered the previous high point for youth involvement. Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International gave Democrat John Kerry a 54-45 advantage among young people, compared to a 48-46 edge for Al Gore over Bush in 2000.
"I think there were probably a lot of reasons for bringing out the youth vote, but all the media buzz and the campaigns like 'Vote for Change' certainly helped create excitement and general enthusiasm," Carrie Donovan, CIRCLE's youth director, said Thursday.
"I know my own sister voted for the first time and when I asked her why, she said it was partly because of all the 'Rock the Vote' ads on MTV."
Many artist-activists have posted messages of encouragement on their Web sites. Musician Moby urged Bush opponents not to "sink into depression over the democratically expressed will of the majority of voting Americans." Moore, perhaps the most relentless, resourceful and commercially successful of the anti-Bush artists, has replaced a high-tech voter guide and gleeful messages on his Web site with a grainy photo montage of Bush and a brief statement below: "We're not going away. Join our mailing list."
American authors have a long history of being more detached from politics than their peers in other countries, but many worked against Bush during the fall. Stephen Elliott organized "Operation Ohio," which featured readings and phone calls to first-time voters by Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and many others.
"I don't think there's any downside to getting people involved in the electoral process," says Elliott, whose books include the novel "Happy Baby" and the nonfiction "Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Political Process."
"My candidate didn't win - I'm not too excited about that - but 'Operation Ohio' made the world a better place by getting people to vote."
Lethem, author of "Motherless Brooklyn," "The Fortress of Solitude" and other novels, said his election work was a "kind of intervention" against the "radical" politics of Bush and that given another chance he would have done the same.
Meanwhile, Morris said the 2004 election reminded him of making "The Thin Blue Line," his acclaimed documentary about a wrongfully imprisoned man, Randall Dale Adams.
"I spent several years trying to get that man out of prison. I worried about him and I thought, 'I am going to have keep thinking about this unless it changes.' I wanted it to end," says Morris, whose film did help free Adams.
"I saw the election as a similar situation. One of the reasons I wanted Kerry to win is that I wanted the luxury of not having to think about politics. And now that's not going to happen."
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