Originally published in Clamor.
Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?
Billionaires for Bush kicks off a season of protest, pranks and party-going
On a breezy Saturday night in late May, New York’s youngest Billionaires were six-week-old twins dubbed “Cash” and “Carry.” They were proudly toted around by their mother and father, both in evening gowns, while other Billionaires, bedecked in their own ballroom finery, cooed over the infants in elevator lines on the three floors of Chelsea’s City Stage.
The occasion for the duo’s arrival — about 15 years ahead of schedule — was the Billionaires’ Ball: a Spring Bling K’Ching Thing, a night-long party put on by the street theater-cum-protest group, Billionaires for Bush. “Founded during the 2000 Presidential election, Billionaires for Bush (B4B) was designed to be a strategic, grassroots media campaign that spreads like a virus” to denounce the negative effects of wealth on politics, according to the Billionaires’ online DIY guide to becoming a Billionaire, available at their Web site (www.billionairesforbush.com).
Newly mobilized, strategically planned, and garnering more media attention than many of their more official and better-funded counterparts on the (anti-)campaign trail, “Billionaires for Bush is a do-it-yourself street theater and media campaign,” according to Pam Perd, the group’s National Director for Public Relations (who provided only her Billionaire identity, “for separation reasons”). Perd’s effort at separation seems to be in name alone, as she typically devotes 40 hours per week to the Billionaires on top of working full-time.
The creation of a Billionaire identity is but a preliminary step in casting oneself as a Billionaire. Billionaires for Bush’s Web site lists snarky names for acolytes to assume, and encourages them to emerge from “behind closed limo doors” to engage in an intensely media-savvy combination of protest, street theater, organization, and activism. Role-playing generalities may pepper the web site, but the DIY guide to becoming a Billionaire is 45 pages long and provides instructions for everything from developing a Billionaire personality (encouraging newbies to create “Your Persona & Portfolio”) to planning one’s own Billionaire actions (including the inside-out approach of “Counter-Demonstrating at Anti-Bush Events”).
The Billionaires bank upon the creativity of their membership to embrace their story-within-a-story approach to ousting Bush, inverting typical models of protest and demonstration by subversively appearing to support that which they wish to alter. Billionaire street actions are typically peaceable ones in which it’s not uncommon for actual Bush supporters, confused about the Billionaires’ real intentions, to append themselves to the group in a show of mistaken solidarity. According to Perd, the Billionaires’ collective straight face and singularity of focus is what keeps it so effective in “using a heaping spoonful of humor, savvy political messaging, grassroots participation, and the Internet to flush out the truth about how the Bush administration’s economic policies have been a disaster for most Americans.”
May’s Billionaires Ball raised money for the group’s summer “Swing State Limo Tour” and its upcoming actions, currently in the planning stage, in conjunction with the Republican National Convention’s arrival in New York City at the end of August.
At press time, it’s too soon to speculate on how many members will represent the group in New York City. If those numbers mirror B4B’s exponential growth since the first of the year, it seems unlikely that convention-goers will avoid the lavishly-clad impostors. Back in January, at B4B’s inaugural event — which was to kick off the presidential election year of actions, fundraising, and demonstrations — B4B had only two chapters and a Ball with 450 attendees; May’s event boasted approximately 1,100 guests while 50 new chapters have sprung up nationwide, according to Emily Wynns (a.k.a. “Lucinda Regulations”), Deputy Director of Public Relations.
Given the rapidly devolving situation in Iraq, when every passing day seems to provide anti-Bush activists with a new reason to rally to unseat him, and in an increasingly charged election season, the Billionaires’ success in building membership and popularity stems from the fact that “people are looking for change,” according to Perd. “People are very unhappy with the administration at this time and they’re looking for a way to lend their hand to changing that.” As Perd sees it, the Billionaires provide a droll, creative roadmap to effecting such change. “Billionaires for Bush works because of our tight messaging and savvy delivery,” she said. “We know our facts, and we are witty. Plus, it’s fun to be a Billionaire!”
At the spring fundraiser, Billionaires of all ages appeared to agree. Throughout the night, party-goers in tuxedos, opera gloves, and evening gowns streamed into City Stage to watch Billionaire performers convey the group’s message through singalongs, brief speeches defending the rich, and skits in which mock corporation heads and moneyed old-boy networks fought to protect their sizeable political interests.
One of its major successes is that, unlike many other protest groups, the Billionaires have been able to attract participants of all ages and backgrounds with their grandeur. Though Cash and Carry were the youngest Billionaires at the Ball, others ranged in age from seven to seventy. Ariel Willner, aged seven, was wearing a white wedding dress, and answering to “Mary Rich.” According to her mother, Toby Willner, a petite dark-haired woman only slightly less bedecked than her offspring in nuptial attire, their involvement in the Billionaires arose from their participation in the Radical Cheerleaders (defined on its Web site as “activism with pom-poms and middle fingers extended”). “I’m divorced, so when Bush got elected, I would bring Ariel with me to the Radical Cheerleaders practice because I didn’t have a babysitter. She wound up learning the cheers better than me,” said Willner.
Dark-haired Ariel streamed layers of tulle as she shyly circled her mother, who said “I think it’s really rubbed off on [Ariel]. At school they had the students draw pictures of the flag and she wound up drawing two — one was an American flag and the other was a peace flag. It was a golden mothering moment for me,” Willner said with a laugh.
Of her own political involvement, Willner said, “I’ve been doing activist stuff my whole life. Back when I started, you did it because it was the right thing to do, not because it was fun. I think Billionaires for Bush is a great concept — it’s really fun,” she said, gesturing to the throngs of people in their finery. “A lot of people who have progressive sentiments don’t end up getting involved, because they think this is drudgery. If it’s more fun, like this, people want to get involved.”
Around Willner and Ariel, the fun took increasingly disparate shapes as the evening progressed. In the night’s earlier stages, couples waltzed to piped-in ballroom music on a darkened dance floor. An adjacent bar fashioned from folding tables had an inverted black plastic top hat on it. Intended for tips, it was emblazoned with a sign reading “BRIBES.” On the top floor, the Billionaires Follies re-purposed singalong favorites in their own musical satire, replacing the words of the Village People’s hit “YMCA”:
Dubya, when you’re short on the dough
Somewhere between the wildly gesticulating performers and the bar was an elderly Billionaire, dapper in tuxedo and cane. Seventy year old Tom Uchs extolled the Billionaires’ approach. “To produce publicity like this gives strength to individuals and groups,” Uchs said. His companion, Polly Dinero, chimed in, “This puts a new face on politics.”
Dinero, a board member of Responsible Wealth, NY/ United for a Fair Economy (the group whose Boston chapter’s support helped spawn the Billionaires in 2000) believes the Billionaires’ Bush-related efforts are only the tip of the ideological iceberg, in terms of what changes the group can effect politically. “Win or lose [the presidential race], Billionaires for Bush is just getting started. There are congressional races where it’s important to bring those issues out—certain candidates are owned by rich folks,” Dinero said.
Pam Perd also believes in the Billionaires’ post-presidential future. “Corporate cronyism is not going to disappear in one election,” she said. “The Billionaires will continue to exist.” To accommodate the proliferation of Billionaire chapters across the country, as well as to a continually shifting political landscape, Perd said, “Groups can adapt into ‘subsidiary’ organizations,” beneath the umbrella of the Billionaires’ anti-big money philosophy.
Formal in attire more than attitude, the flexible formulas by which the Billionaires broaden their efforts and plan their actions accounts for the group’s ability to stage effective actions and recruit new members far from their New York headquarters, according to Perd. Here, monthly “Billionaire Meet-ups,” open to whomever wishes to attend, generally start with proposed actions that can be reactive (tied into an upcoming news event or governmental visit or occasion) or proactive (celebrating an economic issue-based event of the Billionaires’ own conception, such as its “Widen the Healthcare Gap Day,” which was rung in on June 19).
With upcoming occasions of both types in mind, the Billionaires brainstorm ideas for slogans and messages, asking themselves what their plan of attack should be as well as the goals of the action (maximum media exposure being a primary objective). After breaking into small groups to make suggestions, the Billionaires reconvene and select their strongest strategies and slogans by vote.
Commanding media attention as their primary goal, Billionaires for Bush, like the presidential candidates themselves, look forward to reaching out to swing voters. The “Swing State Limo Tour” is focused upon acquiring new Billionaires by infiltrating college campuses and taking their messages to political events in heavily contested states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the famously pivotal Ohio. The fourth-week culmination of the Swing State Tour will send Billionaires out in force throughout the Republican National Convention, to feature the “Million Billionaire March,” scheduled for August 29 and the “Coronation Ball” which will be held on the eve of Bush’s acceptance of the Republican nomination.
To ensure maximum involvement and mobilization, the Billionaires intend to capitalize on technology, according to Wynns. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of e-mail coordination, and we’ll definitely rely on text messaging,” she said.
Also on the docket for the Billionaires are potential unions with other Web-savvy grassroots groups aiming to activate voters. While no connections have been formalized yet, “we’ve been making strides and alliances with various groups, like Moveon.org, reaching out and being reached out to,” said Perd. “Has there been anything concrete, announced, official? No, but there are alliances being formed right now,” she said.
As the Billionaires kick into high gear in the months leading up to November’s election, demands on top-tier Billionaires are also on the rise. Perd dedicates approximately 40 hours a week to the Billionaires, and Wynns clocks a solid 25, on top of full-time jobs in both cases. “I do expect that as the summer progresses, and the election approaches, we will all be under a great deal of pressure, and will be faced with handling increased work, and accompanying high stress levels,” said Wynns. “Come election day, I will definitely take some time to relax and take a vacation,” she said.
Both Wynns and Perd cite the ardor and innovation of the individuals who comprise the Billionaires as their own source of motivation. “Every member is dedicated, creative, intelligent, and progressive, and being surrounded by such people is a great high,” said Perd. “I was recently asked, ‘What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in the Billionaires?’” she recalled. “Of course, I could have listed off numerous things—but I don’t think about my involvement that way. It’s not a ‘this or that’ situation. I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to be doing, and loving every minute of it.”
Back at the Ball, revelers shared Perd’s enthusiasm. A hip-hop group entreated the crowd to “Bounce, Billionaires, Bounce,” as a man in a white leisure suit and a Nixon mask straddled a beach ball painted to look like a globe. “He has the whole world between his legs,” remarked an onlooker with a maroon Louise Brooks bob, strands of pearls wound around her neck. As she exited CityStage with a tuxedoed date, they sidestepped Cash and Carry to stride past an ice sculpture in the shape of the Billionaires’ symbol: a rotund piggy bank, stuffed to overflowing with (faux) cash. Over the course of the evening, in its inevitably melty undoing, the ice sculpture streamed, sending the illusion of money trickling down.
This article originally appeared in the September/October, 2004, issue of Clamor.