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Billionaires for Bush! (Relax people, it's a joke.)


WEDNESDAY, July 28, 2004 -- The Billionaires for Bush, with their farcical take on our country’s rich-and-beautiful set, make for great political theater. As the 100 or so Billionaires – all dressed to the nines in black tuxedos and pink gowns, top hats and tiaras, money ties and feather boas, silk ascots and elbow-length gloves -- pranced through the streets of Boston on Tuesday night, they inspired an undulating wave of laughter.

It took a while, though, because it wasn't obvious to all that this was a joke.

When the Billionaires strutted down Congress Street and into the city’s financial district -- shouting "Huzzah! Huzzah," the rallying cry of the filthy rich -- one irritated pedestrian flipped them the bird. When they handed a young women covered in KERRY ’04 buttons a BILLIONAIRES FOR BUSH sticker, she cringed and threw the sticker on the ground. Only after one of the Billionaires rushed back to clarify ("No, no! It’s a joke! It’s a joke!") did the woman begrudgingly retrieve it. And when the Billionaires called out to passersby, "Thank you, little working people, for paying our taxes," an older man brandishing a DNC credential got so agitated his face reddened. Turning away from the crowd, he scolded one Billionaire. "You shouldn’t joke about this stuff," the man said. "It’s not funny."

The "Million Billionaire March" had kicked off at dusk outside the posh Boston Harbor Hotel -- where the real upper-crust types were congregating for a convention-related celebration. As the Billionaire pranksters arrived, no one knew quite know what to make of them. At first, hotel-goers looked at the Billionaires and their name tags with obvious bewilderment, their expressions suggesting an internal monologue that might have gone something like this: Who is Seymour Benjamin, Phil T. Rich, and Eileen Wright? Do I know them? Should I know them? The Billionaires' signs (WEALTH CARE IS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT, DICK CHENEY IS INNOCENT, and FREE THE ENRON SEVEN) as well as an oversized check made out to George W. Bush for the amount of "Whatever it takes?" finally gave them away. And their confused expressions softened into smiles. They got the joke and burst into laughter.

This type of confusion and double-take (which is a more typical response to the Billionaires than hectoring from onlookers who don't quite get it) is what makes Billionaires for Bush actions work, says Count d’Monet, a Billionaires from New York dressed in a gold-and-black satin robe stuffed with giant Monopoly money. The costumes, the affect, they all force people to, as d’Monet puts it, "stop in their tracks and listen to the message. It gets them at least thinking about President Bush’s policies, and how they really do favor the rich."

One of the reasons that the Billionaires are so effective is that they rarely break character, even for interviews. When I asked one bemused-looking Billionaire to identify himself, he replied, "Sherwood Cheatim." When I inquired about his real name, he lowered his voice and responded: "Fred, from Atlanta," as if that was all I needed to know. Then, he resumed his personae and told me that he owns a "chain of law firms" that specialize in "protecting the profits of billionaires" -- indeed, he represents only chief executive officers, dictators, and heirs to family fortunes. He and his fellow Billionaires adore George "the wonderfully wealthy" Bush; they despise John Kerry. Cheatim said he came to Boston to march at the DNC and protest Kerry’s campaign platform, which, he stated while shaking his head, "doesn’t look good for Billionaires."



Issue Date: July 28, 2004
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