WASHINGTON -- Putting aside past tensions and old grudges, two former presidents, one former vice president, a slew of political rivals, and other leading lights of the Democratic Party staged a show of unity last night in support of John F. Kerry, while raising a record $11 million for the Democratic National Committee.
Kerry, whose formal nomination as the party's 2004 presidential candidate is expected in July, nevertheless became the Democrats' standard-bearer by acclamation of the exuberant audience of 2,000 people. The night began with a striking tableau of past and present party stars -- Kerry, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Howard Dean, John Edwards, and five other contenders for the 2004 nomination -- raising hands together on stage, a political show of force behind the Massachusetts senator as he mounts a challenge to the better-financed President Bush, whose $110 million war chest at the start of March dwarfed Kerry's $2.4 million.
Clinton provided the sharpest rhetorical flourishes, bringing Democrats to their feet by denouncing the "macho rhetoric" of the Bush White House and mocking the political and personal "choices" of officials there, from cutting college aid and increasing the deficit to expecting the staff to wear starchy white shirts and drink coffee from "china" instead of the Clinton-era styrofoam cups.
"They're the mature party -- they're the daddy party," Clinton said. "They remind me of teenagers who got their inheritance too soon and couldn't wait to blow it."
While the spotlight was on Kerry, many of the evening's highlights involved several of the foes-turned-allies in the room.
Clinton and Gore, for instance, grew estranged toward the end of the Clinton presidency as Gore kept the outgoing president at arm's length in the 2000 race. But speaking from the dais at the National Building Museum last night, Clinton turned to Gore -- seated nearby in the audience -- and called him "the best vice president that this country ever had."
Clinton and Carter, too, have never been close and only rarely appear together, but they had warm words for each other. At one point, Carter joked that he hoped Kerry would help Bush observe one of his legacies -- "involuntary retirement after four years in office." Gore, who had passed over Kerry as a running mate in 2000, endorsed Dean instead of Kerry last year, while Carter also made a public appearance with Dean in Georgia that some political analysts interpreted as a tacit endorsement.
Yet one after another last night, everyone sang from the same songbook to extol Kerry.
The Massachusetts senator spoke last, delivering familiar remarks in a measured tone while heaping praise on the other Democratic leaders and embracing some of their themes. Twice, he echoed Clinton's remark that Republicans would seek to turn Kerry into a "cartoon" liberal.
Kerry also credited Clinton with ushering in a period of "economic greatness" and praised Carter for setting "the standard for human rights." He said Gore's handling of himself in 2000, as the party's nominee in a drawn-out election battle with Bush, "showed us that there is a higher standard than the smash-and-smear tactics of those determined to win at any price."
He also echoed Dean, a major rival through the primaries, in criticizing Bush for leading the nation to war in Iraq.
The fund-raiser in downtown Washington netted more than twice the $4.5 million attracted during a similar event in 2000 built around Gore. It capped a day of "unity events" as Kerry returned to the campaign trail after a six-day vacation and began laying the groundwork for the seven-month general election contest.
Kerry formally received a prized endorsement from Dean, the former governor of Vermont, whose grass-roots support and success in raising $40 million for 2004 primaries impressed Kerry and other contenders. At a noontime rally on an outdoor plaza at George Washington University, the once-bitter rivals heaped praise on each other, hugging several times.
"John and I met a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things that John said to me was, `We've had a tough campaign here,' " Dean said of the bitter words that he and Kerry exchanged until Dean withdrew from the race in mid-February. "We're tough competitors. But there are things in the campaign we talked about focusing on, the things that divides us. Now we're going to talk about the things we have in common."
Dean also took several shots at Bush, at one point comparing the president's service in the National Guard more than 30 years ago with Kerry's record as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam.
"Who would you rather have in charge of the defense of the United States of America: a group of people who have never served a day overseas in their life, or a guy who served his country honorably and has three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star?" asked Dean. For his part, Dean received a medical deferment from the draft in 1970 and did not serve in the military.
Kerry, who also was endorsed yesterday by the million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union, appeared refreshed after his ski vacation, his voice in peak form and his eyes less tired. "No more long answers," Kerry added, referring to his tendency to drone on when he is tired.
The Bush campaign greeted Kerry's return to the political fray yesterday with a new television commercial that says he plans to raise taxes by $900 billion and aims to preempt remarks Kerry is to make today in Michigan, one of 17 states where the ad will run.
Kerry has proposed an expensive new health care expansion but has not proposed raising taxes by $900 billion. His aides condemned the ad as false.
Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.