Celebrities are coaxed to contribute hipness

Famous entertainers range from Bo Derek to `Rock' the wrestler

Election 2000 Republican Convention

August 03, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - This year's Republican mandate: to officially get jiggy wit it.

An aim of the convention, as the Republicans load the line-up with all manner of entertainers, is to get those celebrities to rub their hipness off on the party.

Hence, the break-dancers in tight shirts, the R&B singer in leather pants and the anticipated arrival of Bo Derek - not running toward the camera in a bikini and cornrows, but baring Republican skin nonetheless.

When television viewers tune in tonight and see Chaka Khan busting some moves from the convention stage, they will, the Republicans hope, feel that George W. Bush and his party are the voter-friendly choice.

"The Bush team really worked to make this convention different and put a whole new face on the Republican Party," said Florida Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, who performed last night on the convention hall stage as "Regular Joe," his GOP rock persona. "And it's a lot more exciting than reading the party platform verbatim."

Convention entertainment keys into every age and demographic - from sock-hopping with Dick Clark to the country tunes of Hank Williams Jr.

Of course, the youth vote is ever important as the GOP seeks to capture the spirit of kids who, as the Will Smith song would have it, are "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

Entertainment is particularly abundant this year; the GOP cleared the evening schedule to allow more time for celebrities and performers, redesigned the stage to make space for bands.

"Before, the podium allowed a single speaker, and it was much higher off the floor - now it's wider to make room for dancers, and it's lower, to be more friendly and inviting to the audience," said convention spokesman Gary Hoitsma. "This was the party's attempt to encourage the networks and the public to stay with the convention."

The Democrats have been better known for celebrity supporters - as this month's convention in Los Angeles is sure to prove. While the Republicans promote 20 celebrities in their official convention night line-up, that number will be easily matched in L.A.

But the Republicans hope that their paid performers will appeal to a broader audience - fans of both Lee Greenwood, known for his Reagan-era anthem, "God Bless the U.S.A.," and the World Wrestling Federation body-slammer known as the "Rock."

The celebrity appearances can cause some trouble.

The Parents Television Council, a group calling for responsible programming, objected to the Republicans' idea to have the Rock, alongside House Speaker Dennis Hastert, bang the opening gavel last night.

"The Rock, on Monday night's broadcast, grabbed a woman around the throat and tossed her to the mat. ... This is what the Rock sees as responsible entertainment," said Mark Honig, who heads the council.

"We have to remember, this show is seen by millions of children, and we're questioning whether those are the values of the GOP."

"I say lighten up," replied the Rock, who did not bang the gavel after all.

The party pays the entertainers here, but it seeks Republicans who would probably do it free. The entertainment is not always 100 percent GOP. The Rock, who registered to vote for the first time yesterday, would not say whether he's a Republican.

The convention has seen a few entertainment slip-ups. The other night, a song by Barbra Streisand floated over the convention hall between speakers - even though Streisand bashes the Republicans with gusto.

Later, when producers piped in the "Star Wars" theme for Arizona Sen. John McCain, they inadvertently conjured images of the one-time candidate railing during the primaries against what he called the "death star" forces of the Bush campaign.

The party leaves as little as possible to chance. Heather Whitestone McCallum, an avowed Republican and the first deaf Miss America, will introduce a video tribute to Laura Bush tonight. But none of the words will be hers.

"They're going to give me a script, so it's not really my speech," she says. "But you know I'm really excited to help. People write me fan mail, people respect me and people are interested in my opinions, so I want to tell them I'm voting for George Bush."

Convention entertainment is nothing new. It began in the 19th century, when delegates circulated songbooks to gin up interest in their candidates.

The interludes were critical because they gave the decision-makers time to do real business in those legendary smoke-filled back rooms, says presidential historian Stephen Hess.

This year, the entertainment in the convention hall was a savvy exercise in voter appeal. Republicans featured a video tribute to Kate Smith - a nod to older voters who recall Smith selling war bonds in World War II and singing "God Bless America" on her 1950s TV show.

Last night offered Jon Secada, the Cuban-born pop singer. Tonight, for those who don't go for Chaka Khan, the country music duo Brooks and Dunn will sing.

"They go from Kate Smith to the young girl who sang the opening song in Polish dress," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "It stresses togetherness. It's the main message of the convention, that they're inclusive and diverse and can appeal to young people."

Sun staff writer Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

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