During the ’80s, just two or three groups in Washington demonstrated any kind of creative protest that garnered notice (and one of them wasn’t really even a “group”): the students at Howard and Gallaudet universities and the gay rights/AIDS action coalition ACT-UP. Gallaudet and Howard students had quarrels with their administrations—the former for their school (again) naming a non-hearing-impaired person to run the university, the latter for their school making the ludicrous decision to name the late Republican consultant/political hit man Lee Atwater to its board of directors.
The Gallaudet students made dartboards, with higher point totals for landing darts on the offending school president’s ears, and Howard students, from the radio perspective, had chants that had dual syncopated lyrics—a far cry from the hoary 1960s cries of “What do we want? [Fill in the blank!] When do we want it? Now!”
But something that has been missing in protest for a long time is humor. Many things can stand up to earnest outrage, but few can stand in the face of being mocked—it’s been true from the time of Thomas Jefferson through to Tammany Hall, and it’s true today. If there’s anyone who knows this, it’s the Billionaires for Bush.
On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 20, when the heart of the District of Columbia looked like something out of Escape From New York—grim concrete barriers turning the streets and major arteries into something out of Dick Cheney’s central circulatory system, search lights and armed SWAT officers on every other corner—a club near the MCI Center rocked with people celebrating the next four years. Like any inaugural ball, these people were dressed in black ties and top hats, sequins and ball gowns. Except none of the other inaugural balls called itself the “Re-Coronation.”
This was the party for the Billionaires for Bush, a street-theater protest group that has grown into a national phenomenon and registered political action committee. Earlier in the day, near the FDR Memorial, the Billionaires held an “auction” for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Social Security. The leader of the D.C. chapter, “Ivan Tital”—the group’s leaders adopt noms de guerre—said of the president’s Social Security privatization plan, “Bush’s plan gives brokerage firms at least $30 billion over the next 75 years. He takes good care of our retirement, if nobody else’s!”
After a band finished rousing the overdressed at the Platinum nightclub later that night, Tital exhorted the crowd, “These are great times to be wealthy! We’ve got a whole line of new wars . . . and our new motto is ‘Drain America First.’”
The Billionaires’ national co-chair, “Alan Greenspend,” a prematurely graying man in his 40s with a cloisonne cross patterned with the Stars and Stripes in his tux lapel, tells me that the group has expanded to more than 75 chapters across the country since it started up in the fall of 2003. On the back of his flag-festooned name tag, he proudly showed a picture of himself posing with Newt Gingrich taken at last summer’s Republican National Convention. Gingrich apparently had no clue of the sardonic nature of the group, which chants things like “One, two, three, four, we make money, then there’s war!” and “Five, six, seven, eight, Halliburton’s really great!”
Greenspend says liberals often don’t get the joke, sometimes even setting their sights on the Billionaires themselves. “Some people don’t have a sense of irony,” he says. Even the Fox News Channel wrote up a straight-faced text piece on them for its web site, until someone clued Fox in and the channel pulled it down. “You get what you pay for when you outsource your journalism,” Greenspend chuckles.
The crowd partied like it’s 1929, egged on at first by a band that at one point got the crowd to chant how great it is to be “Rich! White! And Republican!” A sign at the base of the bandstand read repeal the first amendment, and one at the upstairs bar read we are the ownership society. At times, couples walked through the crowd in their formal wear holding masks on sticks over their faces masquerade style, except the masks were cut from blood for oil signs, with the eye holes cut out from the double “o”s. Later that night, enthusiastic Billionaires flung fake money off the balconies over the crowd, reminiscent of the pandemonium Abbie Hoffman caused when he did it with real money in 1967, bringing the New York Stock Exchange to a halt.
A few blocks away, the Washington Convention Center disgorged dour Republicans who seemed to have discovered that inaugural balls aren’t all they are cracked up to be, after their president made his last appearance long before 11 p.m. Meanwhile, at the Platinum, the Billionaires party on, secure in the knowledge that at least someone will be having some fun for the next four years.
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