(Editor's Note: The following is a behind-the-scenes look at the liberal activist group MoveOn.org.)
New York (CNSNews.com) - Frigid temperatures and snow-covered sidewalks didn't deter 2,600 fans of Al Gore, whose noontime environmental speech Thursday drew an assortment of like-minded liberals to the city's Beacon Theatre.
Nearly two hours before Gore took to the stage to deliver a policy address on global warming, loyal fans were cramming themselves into the theatre's small entrance. They were buzzing with excitement.
For passersby who didn't know Gore was about to deliver his third address to the MoveOn.org faithful, they might have mistaken the gathering at the Manhattan theatre for a rock concert.
Dana Rae Warren came from Maine by car and train to hear the former vice president rail about the Bush administration's environmental policies. She is one of MoveOn.org's longtime members, and she has been politically active in her home state because of it.
"I think it's incredibly exciting," Warren said, "but I'm not entirely surprised. The people who are running [MoveOn.org] are amazing folks and they are doing a heck of a job. They have a real sense of hope that things can change."
The liberal activist group that was started in 1998 to oppose the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton has grown by leaps and bounds. It now has more than 2 million members who share a common passion to oust President Bush from office this November.
'I believe I carried Florida'
Gore's speech and his accompanying slide show dealt with global warming on the surface, but it was his fierce criticism of the Bush administration that fired up MoveOn.org members on one of the coldest days of the winter.
Every time Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate, attacked Bush, the crowd went wild; the more passionate Gore got, the more rowdy the audience became. Gore received at least a half-dozen standing ovations and he often had to talk over the spectators' applause.
At one point, when Gore showed an aerial picture of land in Florida endangered by coastal flooding, the crowd began to cheer, obviously still bitter about Bush's contentious victory there in the 2000 race.
"You be careful," Gore warned. "I believe I carried Florida."
The packed auditorium erupted, instantly and loudly embracing the man they believe should be in the White House today.
Ron Turiello of New York City joked that he had come to see the "elected" president. He wasn't alone. Katherine Webster of Buffalo, N.Y., said she still believes Gore was cheated out of the presidency. She came specifically to listen to Gore.
"I'm thrilled," said Webster, who was visiting her daughter. She said she was surprised by the turnout for Gore's speech. "I kept telling my daughter, 'It's too cold. No one's going to show up.' I think this is great."
'Energy is building'
MoveOn.org's executive director, Peter Schurman, said the enthusiasm generated by Gore's speech would likely result in similar events in the coming months. He didn't know if Gore would be the main attraction again, but Schurman said he was "heartened" by the large turnout.
"It's clear the energy here is building," said Schurman, an Internet entrepreneur. "We have such an opportunity in the next 10 months to make a difference and turn our country around and run it responsibly."
Schurman, who is one of six staffers listed on the group's website, predicted that MoveOn.org would continue to expand beyond its 2 million members.
Only one of the founders, Joan Blades, made the trip to Manhattan from the organization's headquarters in California's Silicon Valley. Blades and her husband, Wes Boyd, were probably best known for their flying-toaster screensavers before starting MoveOn.org.
Blades addressed the crowd briefly before Gore did, and she later confessed she was a little nervous speaking in front of the large audience. But after the theatre cleared out, she stuck around to speak with two remaining journalists. Meanwhile, the other VIPs headed to a "meet-and-greet" backstage.
"MoveOn members are often people who haven't been engaged in the political dialogue, and now they're getting involved," she said. "It starts with just signing an e-mail petition, and then the next thing you know they're making phone calls and they're coming to events like this."
She said MoveOn.org has grown into something she and Boyd never imagined. As the tale goes, the two had grown tired of impeachment threats against Clinton. So they sent an e-mail to fewer than 100 friends, calling on Congress to "censure and move on."
From there the group grew. First it attracted 100,000 people to sign a petition opposing impeachment, marking its first milestone on Sept. 29, 1998. Now the group is getting attention from across the globe. It held an awards program earlier this week that featured television ads criticizing Bush. The winning ad will run nationwide next week.
Drawing a crowd
Big-name Hollywood entertainers and other notable liberals have aligned themselves with the organization. They include comedians Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, singers Moby and Alanis Morissette, and actors Michael Moore, Julia Stiles and Benicio Del Toro.
MoveOn.org also has benefited from the financial support of billionaire financier George Soros and Progressive Corp. chairman and chief executive Peter B. Lewis, who pledged $5 million to the MoveOn.org Voter Fund in the form of a matching grant.
Soros, who delivered a stinging address on Bush's foreign policy Monday, was one of the VIPs glowing after Gore's speech.
"I thought it was very good," Soros said afterward. "It was interesting and effective."
Soros has made it a top priority to oust Bush, and he said Monday he would pour more money into the effort if necessary. He already has given $15.5 million to three groups on the left.
Part of MoveOn.org's growth can be attributed to the aggressive public relations crew at Fenton Communications, which has offices in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. At Thursday's event, Fenton staffers hovered near the news media, ready to answer any question that might arise.
Because of MoveOn.org's small staff, it takes volunteers - young and old alike - to handle chores such as passing out press credentials and escorting VIPs to their seats for large events like Gore's speech. Most of the volunteers, including Nathan Alley, a law student at New York University, said it was their first time helping out.
"I'm a lifelong proponent of the environment, and that's what I want to do with my career," he said. "Anything I can do to meet people is one reason I volunteered, but it's also to be at the center of current events."
That description typifies the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that excites Blades.
"It's about taking passions that people have," she said, "and giving them ways to be effective."
See Related Story:
Gore's Global Warming Speech Gets Icy Rebuke (Jan. 15, 2004)
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