John Kerry's five-star campaign.

John Kerry's five-star campaign.

John Kerry's five-star campaign.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
July 9 2004 6:57 PM

John Kerry's Five-Star Campaign

How many millions can you spend in three weeks?

NEW YORK—Never mind the arrival of John Edwards; I knew the general election had begun when I got my own butler. During the penny-pinching primary season, when the candidates were constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, I followed campaigns that stayed at discount hotels and even supporters' homes. Not John Kerry—at least, not anymore. In the past three days, we stayed at the Westin in Pittsburgh, the Sheraton Sand Key Beach Resort in Clearwater, Fla., and the St. Regis Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where each room comes equipped with a 24-hour on-call Jeeves and where the rate for my room, picked up by Slate, was $299 a night. (On hotels.com, it goes for $445.) Somewhere between March and July, the presidential campaign turned into an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! "Say what you will about Kerry, at least he travels better than Gore," one reporter tells me. "Gore was all Super 8s and Econo Lodges." In Gore's defense (or Kerry's, depending on your perspective), the former vice president didn't have $180 million to burn.

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Flush with cash—and still raising it, with $2 million flowing into the campaign after Thursday night's Radio City Music Hall gala and another $1.2 million after two Friday morning fund-raisers—the Kerry campaign is engaged in a scheme not unlike the one Richard Pryor is tasked with in Brewster's Millions: seeing how much money it can spend on deadline. Unless Kerry takes the unprecedented step of opting out of the public-financing system for the general election, he has to spend his remaining millions in the next three weeks. Once he formally accepts the Democratic nomination on July 29, he's got only $75 million for the next three months. By mid-August, my reporter friend might start grumbling again.

At least she'll still have the Kerry planes to enjoy. They're a long way from McFun, the Ford E-350 I rode in with Howard Dean nearly a year ago. I have yet to reach the hallowed ground of the real Kerry plane, which is reserved for the press pool, but the secondary press plane—paid for by its passenger-reporters—is a four-across, first-class affair, and the only restriction upon its travelers appears to be the assigned seating chart. Cell phones, Blackberries, and laptops whir throughout the flight. There are flight attendants, but they're there to lavish the press corps with food, not to take away our drinks during takeoff and landing or burden us with demands to wear our seatbelts, put away our tray tables, and place our seats in the upright position. Yet another media myth demolished: The national political press are alleged by some to be engaged in a devious scheme to force socialism upon an unwitting American public, but when we fly, we take Libertarian Airlines.

(A few overhead compartments burst open during our landing Wednesday in Cleveland, prompting some frenzied journalists to leap to their feet to prevent their belongings from spilling onto colleagues' heads. That's the price of freedom, I guess.)

The other big change from the primaries to the general election is the quality of the celebrities who support John Kerry. The Radio City Music Hall fund-raiser draws A-listers such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Wyclef Jean. In the lead-up to Kerry's surprising win in Iowa, by contrast, one press release heralded a "celebrity-studded RV tour" featuring—I am not making this up—Max Weinberg, some guy from Party of Five, and Kelly from The Real World: New Orleans.

Did anything of substance occur this week? Not really. Just your normal, run-of-the-mill campaign stops, with voters wearing T-shirts of the president surrounded by the words "International Terrorist" and the candidate making homoerotic jokes about his running mate. "I said to [Edwards], we've got to stop hugging like this," Kerry told a women's fund-raiser Friday morning. He then described a Jay Leno bit in which photos of Kerry and Edwards hugging and gazing adoringly at each other were aired to the tune of "You Are So Beautiful." Kerry loved it. "I just want you to know," he told the assembled audience, "I thought we made a great couple."

And I thought, you know what, John Kerry can be charming. When he's not irritating, that is, as he was Thursday night when he followed his boast that the Democratic ticket had "better hair" with, unbelievably, a pander to the bald vote. "My wife told me earlier, you just lost the bald vote," Kerry said. "Please don't. We're just having fun. You've gotta have fun."