Officially, it's the PantsOnFire-mobile. More colloquially, creator Ben Cohen calls it "the burning Bush" or, simply, "George." Whatever it's called, the 12-foot statue towed behind a dark blue Crown Victoria is the marriage of wealth, political activism and eccentricity.
Cohen, of course, gained quasicelebrity status as the cofounder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, the Vermont-based company responsible for Chunky Monkey, Vanilla for a Change, Phish Food, Karamel Sutra and Cohen's personal favorite, Cherry Garcia. He's also a renowned activist in his own right, putting his time and money behind groups like the erstwhile 1% for Change, which advocated siphoning off said amount of the country's defense budget for humanitarian aims, and TrueMajority, the group indirectly behind this statue. (More on that later.)
"There was some miscalculation," Cohen says, laughing. He's talking about the statue's breasts, which upon inspection appear to have taken on a life of their own. Dubya, it seems, is a B-cup, minimum. The breasts have undergone some reduction, too, since Cohen first paraded the statue around Burlington last October. (It has since been to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as part of a nationwide tour leading up to election day.)
For those inclined to dislike Junior, the statue is truly a beautiful thing. Bush's mug shot is plastered all over a black, round "head" 12 feet off the trailer. His body is fitted in an oversized flight jacket with "mission accomplished" emblazoned on the back. He carries an electronic ticker listing the misrepresentations his administration made on Iraq in front, and in back, paper "flames" shoot from his trousers. From inside the Crown Vic, Cohen can even cue smoke. On the rear of the trailer, a banner advertises Cohen's website, www.pantsonfire.net, where you can order pants-on-fire Dubya dolls and decals.
There is also socially conscious music blasting out of speakers on the trailer's floor, including Counting Crows' rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi" and the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love," both of which I've heard at least five times over the course of the last two hours.
It's a little after 9 p.m., Jan. 7, and for at least the fourth time that day, the 52-year-old Cohen is explaining his $30,000 venture, sticking to his script like a pro: "In polite society, you don't go around calling people liars. We believe it's more appropriate to tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, sir, your pants are getting a little hot.'"
We're in the parking lot of the Channel 13 studios, where Cohen had yet another interview, his last of the day, scheduled. An intrepid, if utterly unprepared, Orlando Sentinel reporter noticed the goings-on and rushed across the street to get an interview. Meanwhile, Central Florida News 13 reporter Julie Kim and I debate the best ice cream ever. She goes with Vanilla for a Change, but I vote for Cherry Garcia. Cohen sides with me, thank you very much.
Cohen flew down here because he realizes that, while the statue makes a good photo op, his presence makes a story, which in turn publicizes TrueMajority.
"Definitely, people are getting more involved," Cohen says. "We get thousands of new members every week. In terms of the media, the coverage has been really growing. They really like it on TV."
The idea of mobile promotion is culled directly from Cohen's Ben & Jerry's days. Back then, he says, Jerry Greenfield was in charge (and in fact, his partner helped him find the Crown Vic), and the theory was simple: If you don't have a big budget, do something outrageous.
And whether you like Junior or not, the statue is funny. Which, Cohen agrees, is a necessary departure from dour liberalism. "The key is to make it fun and not be so serious," he says.
This isn't Cohen's first round of mobile activism. Last year, he paraded a pink pigmobile, sporting a transparent belly packed with fake million-dollar bills, around the Northeast to symbolize the Pentagon's bloated budget. Two smaller pigs followed behind it, symbolizing the country's much smaller commitment to education, and even smaller still commitment to humanitarian causes.
The statue of Bush was designed by a Vermont artist and built, with some help, by Cohen himself. It and the Crown Vic were paid for by $30,000 in donations from members of TrueMajority ACTION, an activist organization rooted in the principles of Cohen's nonprofit, TrueMajority.
While the former is free to Bush bash, the latter's tax-exempt status means it has to focus on issues.
The 350,000-member TrueMajority has an outside-the-box take on grassroots activism, which works thusly: Go to the website (www.truemajority.org), sign up and agree to the group's 10 principles, a collage of basic social justice goals, including shrinking the gap between rich and poor and reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. TrueMajority then monitors congress, and when an issue pops up that may concern its members, the group sends those members an e-mail with a form letter to their congressperson. It's point-and-click activism, for those whose voices otherwise might not be heard.
"[The tour is] especially for people who get their news from TV," Cohen told me earlier that morning. "What you hear is what the president says. If you look behind what he's saying, a lot of it isn't true. We feel character is a big issue for voters. He's not telling the truth."
For the most part, as I trail Cohen from the group's Windermere launching point to downtown, reactions are positive. Most people laugh; some pay no attention, as if 12-foot statutes lambasting the president are commonplace. No one seems especially pissed off, though Cohen would have been hard-pressed to find a more Republican neighborhood from which to begin.
Downtown a few hours earlier, Cohen got lost en route to the WFTV Channel 9 studios -- including a wrong-way turn down Garland Avenue -- and we parked at the corner of Pine Street and Orange Avenue in the shadow of the bulldozed Jaymont block, and waited for the cameraman to find us. It was here we found the night's first articulated opposition, from a panhandler caught by the spectacle of the statue, who then commented that Bush has done a good job keeping us safe.
"I just think he lied," Cohen retorted. Apparently, that was a good enough response.
"Yeah, I think you're right," the panhandler replied. Then he asked Cohen for change.
Cohen obliged with a few coins from his pocket, then offered to throw in a coupon for free ice cream. "Noooo," the panhandler replied, and after unsuccessfully hitting up the rest of the gawkers, wandered off.
We waited for another half-hour or so, and a few dozen onlookers ventured over to ask Cohen what was going on. A few agreed to go to the website; one, a Howard Dean fan, agreed to go to the Dennis Kucinich gathering the next night (Cohen has endorsed Kucinich, which from a certain perspective is strange, since Kucinich is a vegan and Cohen has made millions on milk products). Slowly, the message was spreading, and that's why the PantsOnFire-mobile was in Orlando.
"It definitely turns heads," Cohen says. "People are really glad someone's saying out loud what people are thinking."
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