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Stumping for voters

March 14, 2004|Mark Ehrman | Special to The Times

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to get the young people to pay attention to something, a decent respect of the laws of publicity requires that celebrities should declare the causes which should impel them -- in this case, to the voting booth. So might the Founding Fathers have declared at the recent kickoff party for Declare Yourself, a nationwide campaign to encourage young adults to participate in the 2004 elections. Or as Kirsten Dunst put it: "If I can be a part of something that encourages young people to vote, I'm all for it."

The centerpiece of the event was host and Declare Yourself founder Norman Lear's copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of only 200 printed on July 4, 1776, and one of only 25 known still to exist. America's birth certificate, for which he paid $8 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2000, was mounted for the occasion in the lobby of the former Beverly Hills Post Office building, before leaving the next day on a nationwide tour culminating with a concert just before election day.

"I feel very connected because I had an ancestor that was one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence," said John Witherspoon's 21st century descendant Reese Witherspoon. While not exactly Colonial, the vaulted ceiling of the Italian Renaissance revival-style post office building provided a sufficiently old-school context in which to view the nation's founding document. There were more modern touches, of course: Internet kiosks for downloading registration material from the organization's website ( and entering to win valuable prizes. ("I already voted, thanks," said Leonardo DiCaprio, but he checked out the site anyway.)

And the words of the Declaration itself were projected on the facade of the building, while on video monitors and over the P.A. was an A-list cast (including Renee Zellweger, Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg and Benicio Del Toro) reading passages. Even though Polish-born actress Izabella Miko can't yet vote, she found getting a full dose of the Declaration to be nonetheless helpful. "I have to study it for my citizenship test," she said. "So this is very good practice."

Lines like "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance" might not exactly qualify as a party animal's call to arms, but the evening could hardly be called politics as usual. And if the presence of Clear Channel on the list of corporate partners (Yahoo!, Friendster and American Apparel were also in the list) pretty much guaranteed that Howard Stern wouldn't be dropping by, it didn't stop some speakers from striking a raunchy Rock the Vote tone.

"I think kids should be just as excited to look at porno magazines as they are to vote," announced Jake Gyllenhaal. "Because when I turned 18, I was more excited by porno, and I think that that can change." The lineup also included OutKast's Andre 3000 as emcee and a performance by the spoken-word troupe Fred Martin and the Levite Camp. Hard to imagine them -- and audience members LL Cool J, Russell Simmons, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire -- grilling steaks at a Republican barbecue, but Declare Yourself is declaredly nonpartisan. Presidents Ford and Carter are honorary co-chairmen, Lear points out. "The name of the game is to get people to register," he said. In the 2000 election, only 36 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted.

"That really clinched it for me," said Mark Ruffalo, starring in "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." So he decided to get involved. As for the crowd in assembly on this night, "I would have liked it to be a bit more punk rock, with those 18-year-olds with nose rings," he said. "But this is Beverly Hills. You do what you can."

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