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EILEEN MCNAMARA

Faux politics in full force

From shagging softballs to harvesting hard cash, it is just another evening in one campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The setting is Harvard University but the atmosphere is closer to Hollywood, producer of the likes of "Animal House," the frat movie that Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry says is one of his all-time favorite films.

Surely, it is not Kerry's fault that politics in America has been hijacked by the entertainment industry; that even in Cambridge, the Crimson crowd is happy to oblige when exhorted by a peppy blonde to give Chris Matthews a "rock star" welcome. North Carolina Senator John Edwards preceded him in this venue; the Rev. Al Sharpton is up next.

It would be more reassuring, though, if Kerry, who promises this night to raise public discourse to "the highest common denominator," looked even slightly chagrined by the Monty Hall trappings of this hour-long gabfest with Matthews, the longtime Democratic Party aide who plays a journalist on TV. Instead, Kerry is in full "man-of-the-people" mode, professing a preference for the novels of Leon Uris over those of Charles Dickens, the philosophy of Yogi Berra over that of John Locke. Mindful of his national cable TV audience, the candidate is quick to reassure the wary that he has not been shaped by St. Paul's and Yale alone. He is a hunter and a gun owner, too.

Matthews's show is called "Hardball" but his pitches at the Institute of Politics on Monday night look more like softballs. From his calculated misintroduction of the candidate as "John Kennedy," to his reference to President Bush as "weak-minded," his partisan feathers are in full fluff.

The host has a more discernible political bent than the audience, which might as well be at a screening of "The Blues Brothers," another of Kerry's favorite movies. Dawn Birch, the crowd warmer for the MSNBC show, is so good at her job that she gets the Ivy Leaguers to applaud on cue with the same frenzy, whether it is for a Kerry comment or a commercial break. "I'm going to be wearing these pretty white gloves," she says of the hand signals she will send when she wants a big, big show of enthusiasm. "I see a lot of people chewing gum. Not good on television. Remove the gum," she instructs before the cameras roll. When did college students become so good at doing what they are told?

Handpicked students -- just the right mix of gender and ethnicity -- are led to microphones to ask prescreened questions. "Your parents paid tons of money and pulled every string they could to get you here," Birch reminds them. "They are looking for you to ask a question tonight." Not just any question, though. "No Iraq, no Medicare, no health care," instructs one handler, patrolling the aisles in search of some predetermined balance.

Iraq is the focus of Matthews's questions, however, because Kerry cannot summon a direct answer to a direct question about either his vote authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, or his vote denying the president the funds to rebuild the country. When pressed, Kerry explains that "Sometimes in foreign policy, certain things are complicated. Life is complicated." Well, ah, yeah.

No clear answers but no bad feelings, either, between the two celebrities on stage. Referring to an article in Vogue, Matthews professes surprise that Kerry gave the fashion magazine an interview. It is a momentary lapse into the elitism Matthews is paid to disdain. There is Dawn Birch, after all, challenging the crowd to demonstrate the rah-rah spirit required of participants in such "a fun program." Applaud, she tells them, "This is America, this is journalism."

Kerry exits the stage for a private house party in the wealthiest town in Massachusetts. In Weston, he hopes to raise money from the people who have benefited most from those Bush tax cuts he promises to repeal. No cameras or reporters, even the faux cable TV variety, allowed.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

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