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Bush Fire

[whitespace] Meet Zack Exley: computer consultant, online satirist, pain in the ass

By Mark K. Anderson

CALL IT THE GORE-TEX RACE. Texas Gov. George W. Bush vs. Vice President Al Gore. According to the punditocracy today, it'd take plagues of locusts and a few more Miracles on 34th Street to change the following fact of our collective political future: Gore/Bush will be our two-party presidential sampler platter in November of 2000.

Two scions of wealthy, powerful American political clans. Two "shoo-ins."

And two drug stories (scandals?) in the making.

With the V.P., it seems, claims of marijuana smoking in his Harvard days are no longer ink- and airtime-worthy. He long ago fessed up. He broke laws then. He's better now. Barring any new revelations, this will probably be where the matter rests for all eternity--which in our current forget-me-do political climate is essentially the 17 months between now and election night.

However, with "George Dubyuh"--as he's known whenever his Lone Star image needs a little extra sheen--there are more than just a few innocent tokes at issue. Bush admits to having sown his wild oats well into his 30s. (He's now 52.) He admits to heavy drinking. He admits to womanizing--although he also states that he has always remained faithful to his wife, Laura. But when widespread allegations are raised that he used cocaine during what he terms his "youth" (i.e. before he was 40), he gets out the tap-dancing shoes.

If you thought Zippergate was bad, wary Americans, sit tight. With candidate Bush, the trouble is only beginning.

In the words of Boston Globe media critic Mark Jurkowitz on June 23, "The Bush campaign is functioning under this strange sword of Damocles, listening to reporters clamor for a fuller explanation of those youthful indiscretions, watching while The Wall Street Journal publishes the damning rumor that Bush snorted cocaine at his father's inauguration, and waiting while the tabloids sniff around his old haunts with checkbook in hand."

All the allegations--drinking, drugging and womanizing--put together could run the Bush campaign into the ground in the grand Gary Hart fashion, but it's the rumored drugging that points to a monumental hypocrisy that exceeds even Washington norms for doublespeak. Namely, if a youthful George W. Bush had been tried according to George W. Bush's own unforgiving drug policy, he might well have been sent away to a maximum-security prison for anywhere from 10 years to life.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are now doing hard time around the country--for stays measured in decades if not entire lifespans--because of their youthful dabblings in the white stuff. Were Bush indeed guilty as charged, there would be a tough reckoning ahead. And were the American media truly able to expose hypocrisy in the corridors of power, a future President Bush Jr. would face either the prospect of a complete War on Drugs amnesty or prison. He would certainly look foolish advocating his current hard line--from the lock-'em-away-and-don't-even-think-of-giving-'em-a-second-chance school of criminal policy--toward others caught abusing drugs.

However, since most American media tend to cover politics with all the depth of a People magazine celebrity profile, no mainstream source is likely to cover the Bush-cocaine story as a road into a critical discussion about America's War on Drugs.

Here, then, is where the Internet--one of Candidate Gore's favorite pet projects--comes in.

Due to some mind-boggling political ineptitude on the part of the Bush campaign, one Bay State resident now has a nationwide platform on the World Wide Web to push the questions the candidate has brought upon himself.

Meet Zack Exley, a 29-year-old Boston computer consultant. George Dubyuh's handlers probably wish they'd never heard the name.

Last December, Exley noticed that the governor's Presidential Exploratory Committee had reserved the Internet address www.georgewbush.com--but had neglected to acquire the rights to www.gwbush.com. ("G.W. Bush" is George Dubyuh's other preferred name, his way of saying "Don't confuse me with my daddy.") So, $210 later, Exley became the proud owner of the Internet addresses www.gwbush.com, www.gwbush.org and www.gbush.org.

Go to any of these sites today--the latter two just load up the gwbush.com page--and it's clear that an alternative-universe G.W. Bush candidacy is unfolding, one in which Bush owns up to his years of youthful abandon and applies to his drug-crime policy the same forgiving standards he now expects from voters. Here's a tip, though: The candidate's proposed "Amnesty 2000" program won't be found anywhere but at gwbush.com.

And as long as gwbush.com is not violating any copyrights surrounding the georgewbush.com site, there's little to stand in the way of Exley's pointed satire. For the time being at least, the thousands who visit gwbush.com daily will continue to be exposed to the question their televisions and radios may not be asking.

From here, the story's trajectory depends on whom you listen to. According to Canada's Financial Post, Exley was a reprehensible "cybersquatter" for even registering his three Bush-related domain names.

"Something must be done. The issue matters to everyone, from corporations to political campaigns," writes Paul Kedrosky, a professor of business in British Columbia, in the May 31 Post. "Without the kinds of property protections that exist in the offline world, the online world is just a cheap bazaar, and a home for intellectual property break-and-enter masquerading as free speech."

However, as one correspondent replied in the June 17 edition, "Zack Exley cannot 'hijack' a domain name that did not belong to anyone in the first place. The politician with the name G.W. Bush has no greater right to this or any other domain name than Mr. Exley, let alone all the other Bushes of this world. It may be argued that Mr. Exley is a cybersquatter, but failing to mention that corporations are also doing the same thing on a grander scale misleads the public to believe that the net is ruled by anarchistic individuals."

Soon after Exley threw his virtual hat into the ring, the Bush campaign bought 260 other potential Bush-related Internet addresses. Some names were understandable choices for a campaign trying to secure every possible remaining George W. Bush-related name, such as Bush2000.org. On the other hand, some of the campaign's purchases were downright weird--it bought such oddball names as "bushsux.org" and "bushblows.com"--leading one to suppose that Bush's advisors thought their job (however shortsighted and, ultimately, impossible) was to silence all criticism on the Internet, not just satirical websites that could be mistaken for the real thing.

Initially, the Bush campaign claimed its domain-name buying frenzy happened in the summer of 1998 and thus had nothing to do with Exley's venture. But after purchase records came to light that contradict this claim--the 260 additional names were registered two months after Exley secured gwbush.com--it became clear that Bush HQ had been inordinately obsessed with the homemade website of a twentysomething gadfly.

And, seizing on this strange tale of cybernetic cat and mouse, the media have been building the gwbush.com vs. georgewbush.com story both on these shores and abroad. After prominent coverage in online newspapers (including The New York Times and USA Today and ABCNews.com) during May, Exley reported that gwbush.com saw "hundreds of thousands" of visitors. During the same period, the actual George W. Bush website received fewer than 10,000.

"It's as if I had a major publication that had a monthly circulation of almost a million people for the month of May," Exley, who will be beginning graduate studies at UMass Amherst in the fall, said in a recent interview.


Site Gags: Cyber quotes from a very unofficial source.


Getting Personal

WHEN I FIRST GOT WIND of gwbush.com, I swallowed the sinker as well as the lure.

At the beginning of April, I received a mass email soliciting support for the George W. Bush Presidential Exploration Committee and referring me to its website: www.gwbush.com.

I never even went to the site. Instead, I replied directly to the "committee." In a tone that was less than gracious, I noted that I'd consider voting for the younger Bush "around the same time the Bush family announces their conversion to Islam."

When I received a reply that afternoon stating that "We have converted to Islam, here at the Presidential Exploratory Committee!" I had an inkling that something was screwy. Either I had just been duped, or the Bush family's devotion to winning over every voter was stronger than I'd thought.

The creative corporate sabotage collective ®™ark (pronounced "art-mark") had taken gwbush.com under its wing, and Exley and ®™ark were having fun toying with the gullible hordes--such as yours truly--who hadn't caught on to the joke yet.

I was hooked.

This was back when gwbush.com was a favorite of a few hundred people around the world who had somehow caught wind of the prank website and had emailed the link to a friend or two. If the brain trust at georgewbush.com had played the game with any sense of strategy, this is where we would still be today. They'd be ignoring the little kid off in the boonies who's thumbing his nose at the big, ugly, corporate-funded political campaign, and those of us who enjoy a good satire now and then would get a chuckle out of the Boston Bush-whacker with moxie. (This is precisely the tactic Bob Dole's 1996 campaign applied to dole96.com, a parody of the official dole96.org site. While Bush's people may not want to emulate Dole's electoral strategy too closely, they'd have been well advised to take a lesson from his restraint in addressing online critics.)

"I didn't know I would have the opportunity to have a big forum at this website," Exley now muses. "Because it's not like people were typing in gwbush.com on their own in droves. It was getting a trickle of a very small number of visits every day. There was no chances of me having this as a forum. The only thing I could hope for was to piss off Bush a little bit and sell him the names."

He tried to do the latter in April when the Bush campaign sent him a cease-and-desist letter. At the time, Exley was running a copy of georgewbush.com on his site--and flouting copyright laws in the process.

"So I took it down," Exley said. "I didn't want to get sued for a copyright. I wouldn't mind if they sued me for libel. Because I think Bush did do coke, and I'd love to have him on the stand and have a lawyer ask him under oath if he did coke or not. Then I'd be the Paula Jones of the Bush campaign. ...

"Really what cracks me up about this whole thing is that they're spending all this time on it. When I got the first copyright letter, I could not believe it. I thought, 'My God. These people are idiots. Here they think they're going to get this guy in as president, and they're responding to this little satirical website.' This major Washington lawyer had spent all this time researching the implications of copyright laws on the Internet. Just because of me. Just because of this copy of Bush's site. It's ridiculous."

Bush himself went on the offensive against gwbush.com, calling Exley a "garbage man" in one press conference and informing reporters that he thinks "there should be limits to freedom"--an authoritarian utterance that may come back to haunt him later in the campaign.

The attention Bush has brought to gwbush.com has elated Exley. His site may now become a bona fide political force--albeit a scrappy, underdog one.

As The New York Times pointed out in a June 8 analysis of the whole miasma (in an online article titled "Bush shows how not to handle Internet, experts say"), the last thing a presidential candidate should ever do is draw attention to his critics on the Internet.

"Giving attention to a parody site like this only raises its profile," Washington political consultant Jonah Sieger told the Times. "The power of the Net here is that every user has the power to reach everyone else."

"If they had sent me an email saying, 'Hey, you know, we'd like to buy these names from you for a few thousand bucks,' I would have sold them," Exley now admits. "Because what was I going to do with them? Nobody was visiting the site. But then when I got the [cease-and-desist] letter, I thought, 'These people are stupid. They're freaking out about control over the whole World Wide Web. They don't understand how this works. They don't understand that if they start attacking this website, it's going to get a lot of attention.' So when they asked me how much I was going to sell the website for, I said $350,000. I knew they weren't going to buy for that. It was just a tongue-in-cheek response."

The Bush campaign, of course, didn't cut any six-figure checks for Exley--who admits he would have happily sold out in April.

"Of course I would have sold," Exley said. "But what's wrong with that? This is America. This is capitalism. There's nothing wrong with selling a domain name. They're commodities that are traded in the open market. The stupid thing they did was to increase the value of the website by drawing attention to it."

Now that the campaign has created such an ideal forum, though, Exley states flatly that gwbush.com is not for sale.

Dubyuh, Dubyuh, Dubyuh: An example of the material found in Exley's gwbush.com site.

PAC Instincts

BUSH'S ALLEGED DRUG use raises a number of important questions about the War on Drugs--or "War on Justice," as Exley calls it. Those questions won't go away anytime soon, at least not if the spotlight continues to shine on Exley.

He's now seeking to raise money for an ad campaign in New Hampshire during next year's primary season that asks both candidates if they can truly support the War on Drugs given their own histories (admitted or alleged) with illegal substances.

"There's a million people in jail, total, for drug crimes--at least half of them are people who should not be in jail," Exley said. "They're people who sold a few hits of acid to their friend in a dorm. And that's a crime, but does it deserve a 10-year mandatory sentence? That's insane.

"The stakes are high. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people in jail for no good reason. Tens of thousands of these people were not even drug users--they're girlfriends of drug users or mothers of drug users. And the other ones--the drug users themselves--they need treatment. We don't have enough beds to treat people."

George W. Bush's handlers are now pursuing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Exley, arguing that he is acting as a political action committee and thus must follow FEC rules for PACs. To wit: The website should state clearly who runs it, and Exley should disclose the amount of money he spends on the site.

In his defense, Exley notes that he's not advocating for or against candidates; he's using the presidential race as a vehicle to get people talking about the Drug War. His site does, after all, also link to an Al Gore parody website (www.allgore.com). Nonetheless, he is now considering registering as a political action committee.

Like its previous attempts to silence him, the Bush campaign's latest ploy has further focused attention on Exley. "In a situation like this, it's a losing battle for them to engage the activists on their terms," Internet political consultant Matthew Benson told the Times. "The more you come at a problem from an authoritarian standpoint, the bigger the problem becomes."

If Exley has his way, Bush's--and Gore's--problems undoubtedly will get bigger. Exley has already begun toying with ideas to use more traditional media to highlight the candidates' precarious positions on drugs during next year's presidential primary season.

"[Maybe] that means putting up a billboard with Gore admitting to smoking pot and then a kid who got 20 years for smoking pot. And put them next to each other--and say, 'Mr. Gore, Mr. Bush: Do you think this kid should be in jail?' We'll pick three poster-child cases of somebody who's completely innocent and in jail for 20 years, somebody who did a minor drug crime and is in for life, and somebody who had their house and car and life savings taken away because of the forfeiture laws. ... Suppose we go film the mother of some kid who used coke a few times and now is in jail for 10 years. And we have her asking Bush to tell her whether he did drugs or not. That'd be a significant thing."

Thanks to the platform that George Dubyuh and his people have built for Exley, the next year may actually shed some light on the "War on Justice." So long as the Bush continues to obsess over his Lilliputian critics, those with a little more savvy will continue to twist the rope around his ankles.

"This could really change a lot of things in politics," Exley said about the opportunity he now has to turn his forum into a miniature nationwide referendum. "Right now corporations can raise a lot of money. And it's easy for them to organize big blocks of donations. But it's not easy for ordinary people to organize big blocks of donations. This is going to make it so that issues that people on the web really care about are going to get funded. Nobody cares about funding Gore's campaign. Nobody cares about funding Bush's campaign. But they care about these kinds of issues. Somebody who's got a family member in jail, which is like half the country, can click through and contribute to this cause."

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From the August 19-25, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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