They were not well-dressed counter-protesters, but Billionaires for Bush, a street theater group that lampoons the power and big money behind George W. Bush. At a recent Tuesday night meeting in the Billionaires’ lower Manhattan office, more than 50 people packed the room, half of them in costume. They included graphic artists, actors, computer industry and public relations employees, and one filmmaker/trapeze artist.
“I’m amazed at the amount of energy people are willing to share – they believe our message,” said Pam Perd, the PR director for Billionaires.
Hal E. Burton, a self-described “policy wonk,” said, “the goal is to decide what our most effective [ideas] are and g et them out into the public discourse.” Burton explained that the purpose of Billionaires is “to expose the capture of the government by corporations. We’re focusing on investment and return.”
The Billionaires website states, “Bush’s media team has managed to construct him as a folksy everyday guy whose tax cuts are good for all Americans. It is this image that the Billionaires campaign is aiming to upend.”
And the message is getting out.
Stunts such as having a Karl Rove impersonator, who fooled both press and bystanders, arrive in a limo and schmooze with the group at a recent Bush fundraiser in Chelsea have caught the media’s eye. So far this year, Billionaires has produced television commercials and radio spots, and has been covered by “CBS Evening News,” NPR, the Yale Daily News and three separate times by The New York Times.
In character, the Billionaires pretend this is normal: “Whose media? Our Media!”, they chant.
But beyond the fun of $100-bill ties and fake cigars is serious strategy. At the meeting a color-coded map of swing states was passed out. Billionaires has not only developed chapters in Democratic strongholds such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles, but in the key battleground states of Michigan and Oregon. Currently, there are 35 chapters in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and three overseas.
Billionaires is the brainchild of activist, author and prankster Andrew Boyd a.k.a., Phil T. Rich. He says the seeds were planted in 1997 while he was working for United for a Fair Economy, a group of left-leaning economists that publishes Dollars & Sense.
He had the idea to sabotage a stunt being held by Republicans on the ship of the Boston Tea Party fame. Their plan was to dump a box symbolizing the tax code off the deck of the historic ship, but enterprising activists paddled up in a “working families life raft” in the middle of the event. In the end, the box thrown overboard sunk the raft, and the media had a field day. It was not the kind of press the Republicans wanted.
After other media stunts, Billionaires for Bush and Gore was launched on April 15, 2000, to highlight the special interests behind the two major presidential candidates. Their symbol was the image of a tycoon similar to the one on the Monopoly board game.
The result was street theater that made people laugh and drove a message home. “For too long we have ruled the world from behind closed limousine doors,” Boyd declared in 2000. That year, Billionaires marched alongside protestors in Los Angeles, Boston and a dozen other cities, blossoming into two dozen chapters. At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia that summer about a hundred faux billionaires were in attendance.
Political theater in public spaces dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but enjoyed a revival in the sixties with groups such as the Diggers, the SNCC Freedom Singers, the Living Theater, San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Bread and Puppet Theater. The Situationists, started in 1957 by European artists, staged interruptions in the “spectacle” of modern society and came to international prominence during the 1968 student rebellion in France. In the eighties, ACT UP, the radical AIDS-activist group, successfully used tactics such as “die-ins,” where hundreds pretended to be dead and had to be hauled off by the police, to dramatize their message. One change for the Billionaires is that they are not targeting the Democratic Party this election. Clifford Tazner, (a.k.a. Felonious Ax), who is the Billionaires’ musical director, explained, “We’re still big leftists. A lot of us aren’t thrilled with John Kerry… Bush is just so bad.”
“The American public is extremely dissatisfied with the policies Bush has put into effect, and the way the world has changed so rapidly in the national and international arenas,” added Perd.
Naturally, Billionaires is gearing up for the Republican National Convention in New York this summer. In August, they will hold a Million Billionaire March, which they promise will be a gala event not to be missed. As the Billionaire’s motto goes, “We’re all in this together. Sort of.”