The American bus may be as humble an icon as the pulley clothesline or rural mailbox, but it’s also been a catalyst for political convulsions and cultural theater. Think of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, the Freedom Riders’ burning Greyhounds or Neal Cassady driving the Merry Pranksters “furthur” in a 1939 International Harvester. Now, thanks to a Silver Lake musician, an old L.A. school bus will become a weapon in the fight to end that Boys Gone Wild kegger known as the Bush administration.
The Blue Bus is the project of 32-year-old Doug Levitt, whose résumé lists a Fulbright scholarship, a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and stints as a news correspondent for CNN and others in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Levitt, who grew up in Washington, D.C. (his mother is a liberal Republican city councilwoman who twice ran for mayor against Marion Barry), says his reportage in world trouble spots drew him into his campaign. “It was a barrage of inequities and our constant obliviousness to what was going on in the world. What people hate the most about America is our hypocrisy, and George Bush is nothing if not a hypocrite. It would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.”
His idea is to pack the bus with an assortment of musicians, comics and artists who will visit two cities in each of the swing states (except Florida), where they will spread the word — and lots of voter-registration forms — for John Kerry. The bus’ color symbolizes its passengers’ hope to move the undecided states into the “blue,” Democratic column.
“Republicans are banking on the fact that Americans are asleep on the blue-screen highway,” Levitt tells me before a recent L.A. kickoff for the bus. “One hundred ten million people voted for American Idol, 105 million for the American president. If this election stays confined to the narrow bandwidth of white people yelling on cable, then it’s over, because that’s what they do well.”
The contrasting figures between American Idol and the 2000 election
appear on the Blue Bus Web site (www.the bluebus.com), and Levitt will repeat this and other talking points a few minutes later when he addresses the 40 or so people gathered on the second floor of Hollywood’s Television City building. The crowd is overwhelmingly in the 20s to 30s range, and the fact that there is no bus here yet makes little difference to them. They are a new generation about to learn the ropes and hard lessons of the American campaign. So far they have not been wiretapped, infiltrated or beaten. They may never have even taken a cross-country bus ride, but they are ready for anything.
Levitt addresses the meeting by picking up a guitar and asking, “Does anyone know ‘Kumbaya’?” The room erupts in laughter — no one believes for an instant there is any danger that Levitt will lead the group in the old folk standard from the ’60s. This is an enthusiastic, perhaps even idealistic, gathering, but it is also a focused group, a seemingly well-employed crowd that knows what it wants and how to get it.
“If not us,” Levitt says, “then who?”
The wine, chips, pita and veggies offered on a buffet table somewhat resemble the kind of spread you might have found during a gathering of anti-war protesters 35 years ago, although the donated Glenfiddich Scotch draws a line in the sand between the two generations, as does the evening’s raffle prizes of Pilates sessions and spa visits.
“Will this be some neo-hippie brigade relegated to the corner of the Internet?” asks the Blue Bus Web site’s FAQ. “No. We are aiming for a new center in America.”
The Blue Bus campaign is not a children’s crusade, and John Kerry is not a Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern. To those assembled here last week, Kerry is an honorable man of the establishment who has the best chance of defeating George W. Bush, and that is what matters. “I wasn’t a born and bred John Kerry guy,” Levitt told me. “But right about now, that guy’s looking pretty darn good!”
Levitt combines an infectious enthusiasm with a can-do confidence that easily connects with the crowd. “As Michael Moore and others begin to show,” Levitt tells me, “politics are not only good for the idea marketplace, they’re potentially good for the money marketplace. We live in a capitalist democracy — you gotta run with the dollar, you’ve got to show there’s a market for arts that speak to the moment.”
The Blue Bus’ first stop will be Seattle, on September 4. Levitt outlines what will happen when his “traveling USO show” comes to a town.
“We’re going to show up and play in public parks, college campuses, firehouses and union halls. We’re going to mobilize and register people to vote. We’re organizing Roll Out the Vote for the disabilities community. We can’t do everything, but we want to be a kind of aggregator.”
And so it is that in a time of networking and political professionalism, the agitator has been replaced by the aggregator, an organizer who appeals not only to emotion but to the hard facts of policy in order to reclaim the center.
“Kerry is probably the most credentialed nominee of any party in modern American history,” Levitt says. “What are we looking for?”