Norm Coleman is George Bush's bitch.
That, in so many words and full-color animated frames, is the gist of BushBoy.com, which went live before the election and remains one of the year's most inspired--not to mention righteous--political websites. And as the sun fades on another sub-zero work day spent scrolling through dispatches chronicling this country's bum rush to oblivion, I must tell you: I not only love BushBoy.com; I need BushBoy.com. Sites like this make me laugh, ward off spiritual atrophy, and provide the daily vitamins and minerals essential to staying pissed off when being pissed off is a matter of survival.
I discovered the locally generated site when a friend e-mailed a link to a short bit of Flash animation on the homepage that features dead-on caricatures of both Coleman, rendered as a preening puppet, and the president, who literally has a hand up his senator's ass. Like the various e-cards at BushBoy that can be downloaded or sent to friends, the film's graphics would make the pros at PIXAR proud. What compels you to reload the piece again and again, though, is the audio track, which was lifted from Coleman's official campaign website and spliced together to take full advantage of our Republican party boy's voluminous vocal ticks, mannered hiccups, and rhetorical non sequiturs. "I am not going to say anything deep and profound," the dummy stutters. "I can't. I don't fully understand it." On and on the former St. Paul mayor prattles until it's revealed that the emperor has no trousers.
Rob Davis, a 28-year-old software peddler and "political neophyte," decided to step up in July after a vow to become better informed led him to read Ariana Huffington's How to Overthrow the Government and the first 50 pages of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men. (Davis told me he plans to read the rest of the book at some point. I told him 50 pages was about right.) He connected with Northfield High soccer mate and freelance graphic artist Adam Wirtzfeld, a philosophy and German grad who did a stint at the Joe Kubert comic-book school in New Jersey. The two began brainstorming, kibitzed with storied smart alecks such as Zack Exley, founder of GWBush.com, and agreed that the appropriate outlet for their satiric ire was Coleman's cozy relationship with big business and Big Brother Bush. "We figured that if we could have something that's 80 percent humor, you might be able to get people to pay attention to the 20 percent that is serious, critical content," Davis explains.
"We felt and still feel that Norm is not adequately scrutinized in the media for essentially being the quintessential sellout," seconds Wirtzfeld. "And I decided I couldn't stand looking at that stupid, shit-eating grin for six years."
The born-again activists put together a mission statement ("Chipping away at Norm Coleman--one tooth at a time"), created a towering cardboard sign (featuring their nemesis yoked to a leash and yanked by his master, money), and on October 13 hauled it to a youth vote rally at First Avenue, where they ran into Citizen Coleman for the first time. "I almost felt sorry for the guy. I mean, that was not exactly a friendly place for him to show up." Wirtzfeld remembers. "When he saw us, he just walked past and said, 'Nice sign.'" BushBoy.com launched three days later.
Wirtzfeld's ephemeral empathy for Coleman at First Ave. was not a mock-up. There is a wide-eyed, good-guy ethic bubbling almost imperceptibly below the surface of this underground endeavor. The clean-cut Davis would be right at home briskly navigating the halls of NBC's West Wing, a good-natured but gravely determined change agent. Wirtzfeld could play the guest role of the wise-cracking creative type; his mussed red hair, trimmed goatee, and turtleneck are the perfect accoutrements to match his chilled-out slouch. Davis tends to think the Democratic party can be salvaged from within. Wirtzfeld isn't so sure; he's got a Nader gene ripe for germination. Those philosophical differences aside, they both approach the political arena with the eager naiveté of freshman poli sci majors about to partake in their first NAFTA protest. While sitting next to each other at an Uptown coffee shop, proudly spinning yarns about their exploits on the campaign trail, they finish each other's sentences with a phone prankster's snickering verve.
"This is about two Joe Citizens getting mad and getting involved," Davis says, tongue spitting distance from cheek. "We're both, like, two months into caring about politics and we discover that, yeah, we can make a difference."
It's the sort of unconsciously sober, card-carrying idealism the left desperately needs, in no small measure because it drives conservatives to distraction. Wirtzfeld and Davis are especially proud that the Coleman camp sent a roving pack of frat boys to political rallies where the BushBoys might show up, both to shout vaguely threatening profanities and to keep their BushBoy.com sign off the nightly news. They also noted that while they received universal kudos from local lefties on Black Tuesday, a couple of Democratic party pooh-bahs from out of town scolded them for propagating a "negative" sense of humor (something of which they should feel equally proud).
These good vibrations notwithstanding, BushBoy is both an edifying snapshot of entrepreneurial subversion and, thanks to the very sorts of moneyed monsters Davis and Wirtzfeld set out to slay, a harbinger of things to come and most certainly go.
Over this past election cycle, the use of the Internet by politicians and various interested parties evolved exponentially. Besides official chat rooms and information pages, there were tens of thousands of providers with content similar to BushBoy. To combat the deluge, Davis and Wirtzfeld cobbled together a grab bag of guerrilla tactics to seize attention--strategies the two parties are sure to steal and commodify well before 2004.
Their first goal was to become, as Davis puts it, "viral." In short, they were willing to do anything but spend more than about 40 bucks a month on the project. They made sure there were various ways to forward and re-forward BushBoy content, in the guise of comic greeting cards or animated one-offs, which increased the probability that users would eventually surf there to peruse the harder content or, at the very least, pass the word. They spent a few pennies a week to make sure their URL enjoyed priority status on search engines, such as Google, so that when people typed in keywords such as Norm or Coleman or Senate, BushBoy would be listed before anything else. Finally, they worked, as Davis says, to "connect online parody with real life visibility." In other words, they made a nuisance of themselves. The evening before the election, their battered placard could be seen in the background of a news report on CNN. The site was hit thousands of times in just a few hours.
In six weeks' time, BushBoy received 65,000 unique visitors and generated 2,300 e-mails--short-term numbers that would not be discouraging to a small, for-profit startup. "I think we have left a lot of resources for the next person," Wirtzfeld says. "The tactics we used could be even further exploited."
Exploited by whom, though, is the question. And the answer is all too obvious. With the advent of soft-money restrictions, there's even further incentive for pols to pass the word on the cheap. And, thanks to loopholes in the law, there's plenty of room to do just that, without oversight by the FEC or the FCC. In 2000, there were already a number of cross-promotional parody sites available on portals like AOL, where political banner ads and related memorabilia were sold to grease the wheels. So don't be surprised when those frat boys who were trying to stymie Davis and Wirtzfeld start carrying their own banners--and get handsomely reimbursed for the favor.
In the meantime the BushBoys, having had a few drinks to ease the pain of Coleman's victory, say they are gearing up to shift from attack dogs to "watchdogs." Here's hoping it will be hard to tell the difference.
Editor's note: Want to meet Davis and Wirtzfeld offline? Head over to the Brave New Workshop Theater tonight, December 11, at 7:30 p.m. for the BushBoy holiday party/fundraiser. Seventeen bucks buys a ticket to My Big Fat Lutheran Christmas, and a portion of the proceeds will help fund the website. For more information, call 612.332.6620.
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