Politics & Policy

Going Viral

MoveOn and the Peacenik Crusade

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is excerpted from NR White House Correspondent Byron York’s new book, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. York’s new book details how MoveOn.org, George Soros, Michael Moore, 527 groups, Al Franken, and other Democratic activists built the biggest, richest, and best organized political movement in generations. Among other things, the book discusses MoveOn’s origins and how, in the summer of 2004, the group used its Internet organizing power in an attempt to create the impression in the media that there was a wave of anti-Bush anger sweeping the country.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a young man named David Pickering was at his parents’ home in Brooklyn–he had graduated from the University of Chicago a few months earlier and was looking for a job–when he heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. He went outside to see what was happening across the East River. Astonished by the sight, Pickering, an aspiring filmmaker, grabbed his video camera and hopped on the subway; unlike the thousands of people struggling to flee Manhattan, he was actually trying to make his way closer to Ground Zero. He got as far as an elevated train platform with a view of the burning towers. And there he stood as the buildings fell.

All day and night, Pickering shot interviews with people on the street, trying to get a sense of what they were feeling. They were stunned, horrified, angry, and confused. Of course, Pickering felt some of the same things himself, but as he reflected on what happened, an idea came to him: September 11 was an opportunity, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for peace, if only the U.S. government could be persuaded not to defend itself militarily. “It was this incredible moment in which all doors were opened and the world was seeming to come together,” he told me from Paris, where he was attending La Fémis, the French national film school. “I had this feeling that it would be a shame if that were spoiled by a spirit of vengeance.”

The next day, Pickering put his thoughts into writing. He drafted a petition imploring President George W. Bush and other world leaders to show “moderation and restraint” in responding to the attacks. He asked Bush “to use, wherever possible, international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.”

That evening, September 12, Pickering sent the petition to about thirty friends, asking that they “sign” the document–electronically, of course–and send it on to others. By the next morning, he told me, there were between 3,000 and 4,000 signatures. Then a friend from the University of Chicago posted the petition on the school’s student server. A couple of days later, there were nearly 30,000 signatures.

One of the people who saw the petition was a young liberal activist named Eli Pariser. A 2000 graduate of Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Pariser was working for More Than Money, a left-leaning Cambridge-based nonprofit educational organization. He, too, opposed military retaliation for the terrorist attacks, and he had set up his own website on September 12–he called it 9-11peace.org–with a message similar to Pickering’s. Looking for a way to attract attention, Pariser e-mailed Pickering to suggest they combine their efforts. Pickering quickly agreed.

That’s when the project took off. Within a month, about 500,000 people, perhaps half of them in the United States and the rest around the world, had signed the petition. Nearly every day, Pariser came up with new statements, and new petitions, to send out, and each of them managed to attract thousands of signatures. A born political rabble-rouser–the child of Vietnam War protesters, he is said to have started his picketing-and-demonstrating career at the age of seven–Pariser aggressively promoted the cause in ways that hadn’t occurred to the introspective Pickering.

Soon it paid off. Thousands of miles away, in Berkeley, California, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, the husband-and-wife founders of the left-wing activist website MoveOn.org, were reading 9-11peace.org, and they were impressed by what they saw. A few years later, in September 2004, I asked Blades what it was that had caught her eye. She told me the whole phenomenon reminded her of some of MoveOn’s own petitions, including the calling for restraint after the September 11 attacks. “It was similar in results to the one we had,” Blades said. “It went viral on an international scale.”

MoveOn got in touch with Pariser, offering advice and technical assistance. Pariser was happy to accept, and soon he and MoveOn started working together, not only on the petition but on other issues as well. Not long after, Boyd and Blades offered him a job. For Pariser, it was an opportunity to join the world of big-time Internet organizing. For Boyd and Blades, it was a chance to recruit someone with lots of enthusiasm about both politics and the Internet. And one more thing: Pariser brought with him the e-mail addresses of the thousands of people who had signed the antiwar petition. For MoveOn, the list provided a healthy infusion of new contacts–people who could be asked to send contributions and sign petitions–which are the lifeblood of Internet activism.

Meanwhile, the swirl of events passed David Pickering by. During the Christmas holiday in 2001, he told me, Pariser broke the news that he had decided to join Boyd and Blades. With that, 9-11peace.org was over. Pickering wasn’t really upset; although he had strong political feelings, he wanted to make statements through films, not petitions. I asked whether he had any hard feelings about Pariser getting all the credit for their work. Not at all, Pickering told me. That kind of politics just wasn’t for him: “MoveOn was always Democrat in a way that I wasn’t necessarily interested in.” Not long afterward, he headed to France.

That brief period–the last few months of 2001–was a critical time not just for Pickering and Pariser but also for MoveOn. In the months before September 11, MoveOn was an organization searching for a purpose. Boyd and Blades had been trying to stir opposition to the policies of the Bush administration–tax cuts, energy, education, just about everything else–but on the eve of the terrorist attacks, MoveOn had no urgent, overarching cause, as it had in 1998, when it opposed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The attacks, and the petition, changed that.

After September 11, MoveOn became, in effect, a peace organization–and a radical one at that. In doing so, it threw off the façade of left-leaning moderation that it had carefully maintained during the Clinton years, when a large number of Americans essentially agreed with its views on impeachment. Opposing military retaliation for the terrorist attacks–a position supported by only a tiny portion of the public–shifted MoveOn to the left fringe of American politics. Animated by a new cause, it pioneered new ways of raising money through the Internet, of organizing its members through nationwide meetings, and of attracting attention in the press. But even though MoveOn would recruit a group of dedicated followers and receive much admiring coverage, its pacifist core and strident anti-Bushism–its leaders were peace advocates who loved to produce smashmouth political ads–ensured that MoveOn would remain on the political margins. To this day, Boyd and Blades insist that they represent the views of the “real majority” of Americans. But events proved otherwise.

THE APPEARANCE OF A MAJORITY

[The Vast Wing Conspiracy traces MoveOn’s history from the Clinton years through its work during the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. And then MoveOn jumped on the bandwagon for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.]

As the presidential campaign progressed, the most prominent of MoveOn’s projects came in June, when the group joined the promotional effort for Michael Moore’s new movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. The week before the film premiered, Pariser asked members to sign a pledge to see it during its first weekend. The point, he explained, was not simply to show support for Moore’s picture. The point was to create the impression in the press that Fahrenheit 9/11 was the leading edge of a wave of anti-Bush anger sweeping the country. “We launched this campaign around Fahrenheit 9/11 because to the media, the pundits, and the politicians in power, the movie’s success will be seen as a cultural referendum on the Bush administration and the Iraq war,” Pariser told MoveOn members. “Together, we have an opportunity to knock this ball out of the park.”

A few days later, on June 28, MoveOn organized “virtual house parties,” featuring a live Internet link with Moore, in homes, coffee shops, and theaters around the country. Before wildly enthusiastic crowds–I attended one such gathering, filled with true believers, at a movie theater in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood–Pariser extolled the success of the new movie. “Due in part to your efforts, Fahrenheit 9/11 was the number-one movie in the nation this weekend,” Pariser told his “virtual” audience. “Now we’re going to talk about how to turn that enormous momentum into action to beat Bush.” Moore then delivered what was pretty much a monologue–the technology of supporters posing questions via the Web didn’t seem to work all that well–and the evening ended with a please-register-to-vote appeal. “None of us want this just to be a movie where people just eat popcorn and go home,” Moore said.

When Fahrenheit 9/11 came under scrutiny from critics, MoveOn rushed to Moore’s defense. Pariser encouraged members to write their local newspapers to praise the movie. And they didn’t even have to write–all they had to do was click on MoveOn’s “easy-to-use letter to the editor tool,” enter a ZIP code, choose from a list of local papers, and then select a “pre-written” letter. “I am shocked that many critics have denounced Michael Moore’s new movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, as unpatriotic and anti-soldier,” said one such letter. “I find it interesting that the most fervent critics of the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 seem more obsessed with attacking Michael Moore than in taking on the points he makes in his film,” said another. “Moore’s movie raises extremely difficult questions that deserve our attention as we move towards the November elections,” said a third.

The strategy worked. Scores of newspapers around the country printed the letters as if they had been written by the people who sent them. The “I am shocked” letter, for example, found its way into the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Arizona Republic, the Fresno Bee, and about a dozen other papers. Much the same was true for the other letters. As they had during the movie’s premiere weekend, Pariser and MoveOn had taken another step forward in the effort to create the image of an energized majority.

As the campaign dragged on, MoveOn spent most of its money and energy on television ads, which had brought it so much publicity in the “Daisy” and “Bush in 30 Seconds” campaigns. The group released a commercial titled “He Knew,” which–shades of 1998–called on Congress to censure the president for misleading the country on Iraq. Another ad suggested that Bush had deserted–”simply left”–his post with the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. And “Quagmire” showed an American soldier sinking in quicksand in Iraq, his rifle raised above his head in a signal of surrender.

Each attracted some attention–the goal was always to have them played for free on news broadcasts–but there’s no evidence that the ads had any actual effect on the campaign. And some Democrats wondered whether the spots were really intended to help the party in the first place. “I don’t feel it’s been effective impacting the race at all,” one respected Democratic strategist–a former Howard Dean advisor–told me a few weeks before the November election. “I feel like it’s been effective in getting attention and generating hits for their website and generating contributions to MoveOn.”While that was not necessarily a bad thing, the strategist told me, it also was not terribly useful in a tough election. “The campaigns are trying to talk to swing voters,” he said, “who are far more rational and less emotional than the histrionics of MoveOn’s

advertising would suggest.”

But the ads–and the money that paid for them–were moving MoveOn back into the center of Democratic activism. And perhaps the surest sign that MoveOn’s fringe politics had merged with the Democratic mainstream came in April 2004, when staffer Zack Exley left MoveOn to join the Kerry campaign as its director of Internet organizing. “As a master of online organizing, he’ll equip the most important presidential campaign in decades with an understanding of the powerful new techniques we’ve helped to pioneer,” Boyd and Blades said in a statement. Republicans protested that Exley’s move represented illegal “coordination” between MoveOn and the Kerry camp–the law forbade campaigns from working with outside groups like MoveOn. But the charge went nowhere, mostly because Exley really didn’t need to coordinate with his old colleagues. They were all doing pretty much the same thing, and he simply switched from one part of the team to another.

That is not to say the people at MoveOn took the anticoordination laws all that seriously. In June 2004, the entire MoveOn crew appeared at a Washington hotel to accept an award given by Campaign for America’s Future. It was a big dinner–George Soros was there, along with lots of movers and shakers in the Democratic 527 world, all mingling with one another. When Pariser–wearing a black T-shirt that said simply NOVEMBER 2–spoke, he praised the recently departed Exley as someone who was “not on stage with us but who deserves some of the credit. Because of the campaign finance laws, we’re not in touch with Zack personally, so I wanted to use this opportunity to give him a very important message. So Zack, we’re very proud of you, and the important message is: Please win.”

The audience applauded, and the camera for the big-screen TV at the front of the stage zoomed in on none other than…Zack Exley. Sitting in the audience, hanging out with the people he was not supposed to be coordinating with, Exley seemed to be having a fine time.When his image went up on the screen, a person sitting nearby playfully put up his hand to shield Exley’s face from the camera in a gesture that said, “We know he’s not really supposed to be here.” Everyone had a laugh.

As the campaign ran its course, MoveOn’s last, biggest project was the Vote for Change Tour, a series of concerts featuring Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, REM, the Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, and other musicians. Held to benefit the voter turnout group America Coming Together, the tour was advertised as “20 Artists. 28 Cities. 9 Battleground States.” As that suggested, the purpose was not just to raise money; surely that could have been done in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco. But those cities were in safely Democratic states. For that matter, a lot of money could have been raised in Houston and Atlanta, but they were in safely Republican states. Rather, the point was to raise money while attracting lots of local news coverage in places like Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Clearwater, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio. That way, it was hoped, the stars’ message would reach the maximum number of undecided voters.

The final concert of the tour was held on October 11 at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. As it usually did with big events,MoveOn asked its members to mark the occasion with a nationwide series of house parties. The concert would air live on the Sundance Channel, and MoveOn members were to gather in homes to watch it unfold.

I attended a party in a modest home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. The group, about twenty in all, was all white and mostly middle-aged; the boomer-friendly roster of performers seemed perfectly designed to appeal to them. One man wore an Air America Radio T-shirt, another a shirt that advertised the ticket of “Bush-Satan ‘04,” and yet another a shirt that said “Send Bush to Mars.” They were there to do more than just listen to music; their job, as assigned by Eli Pariser, was to write five letters each to undecided voters in Ohio.

They undertook the task with great earnestness. Yes, there were the occasional cracks–no one in the group could really understand how anyone could be undecided at that point, and one man said he wanted to begin his letter with “Dear idiots who can’t decide”–but overall, the partygoers tried their best to finish Pariser’s assignment. Some of the letters relied on clichés, mentioning, for example, how the 2004 election was “the most important of our lifetime.” One woman tried out a line on the group, saying, “How about, ‘It is time to turn this country in the right direction’?” That was a bit much; someone called out, “That’s a little trite, Elaine.”

By the time the concert was over, the letters were finished and duly sent off to MoveOn, and then on to Ohio. Did they persuade any undecided voters? Certainly not enough to put John Kerry over the top. In the end, the project seemed to resemble nothing so much as the campaign by a British newspaper, the Guardian, to encourage its leftist readers to write letters to voters in Clark County, Ohio, urging them to vote against George W. Bush. People in Clark County didn’t at all welcome such advice from outside. Their reaction to the letters from MoveOn in Washington, D.C., might well have been the same.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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