The Magazine

The Birthplace of Bush Paranoia

From the October 25, 2004 issue: How the political culture of Austin, Texas, infected the presidential race.

Oct 25, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 07 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


"FOR A WHILE I thought about moving to Atlanta," Jeff Lewis was saying, "but then I realized the Austin connection, being here, gives us a kind of special edge, and we really, really didn't want to lose that sort of, I don't know, allure. I mean, other people do what we do, but we're here, right in this man's backyard."

Jeff is barefoot and ear-ringed and prefers black--today it's black jeans under a flyaway black linen shirt, unbuttoned to the sternum. With his business partner Bill Callan, he is founder of "Two Unemployed Democrats Co." an Internet and mail-order business that not long ago, in response to popular demand, opened an outlet store in Austin, the state capital of Texas. They sell bumper stickers, T-shirts, lawn signs, refrigerator magnets, and coffee mugs dedicated to a single, timely proposition: George W. Bush is (1) an incompetent moron driving America into a ditch; (2) an evil genius bent on having America run the world; (3) a plutocrat; (4) a puppet of corporate America; (5) a Machiavel; (6) a dupe of Karl Rove, who's a Machiavel; (7) a cynic whose every utterance is a lie; and (8) a daddy's boy who can barely talk. Hold the email: I am aware that technically this counts as more than one single, timely proposition. But that's what happens when you spend enough time in Austin with people who are obsessed with George Bush. The strands of contempt all begin to run together.

The Two Unemployed Democrats outlet store is set implausibly in the middle of a residential neighborhood in south Austin, which is, if anything, even funkier and more self-consciously cool than north Austin. On the porch, customers are greeted by one of those inflatable punching dolls, the kind with a rounded bottom that helps it pop back up when you smash it, smash it, smash it angrily about the head. The face on the doll is a particularly horrid caricature of Bush. At his side he holds a "to-do" list, with each item checked off: "Give rich friends more tax breaks. . . . Deceive American people. . . . Attack civil liberties. . . ."

It would be unfair to Jeff and Bill to suggest that all their humor is so lame, though it would be unfair to you, the reader, to suggest that a lot of it isn't. Indeed, their entire business plan traces back to a not-terrifically-funny joke that came to Bill while he was watching TV one night. At the time both he and Jeff really were two unemployed Democrats, laid-off bartenders. This was not long before September 11, and then as now neither Jeff nor Bill liked President Bush. At all. "And he's looking at Bush and the thought just goes through Bill's head," Jeff says--Jeff is by far the more talkative of the two, Bill stands by pensively during our interview--"he thinks, 'Like Father, Like Son--One Term Only.' When he told me about it, I just thought, 'Oh yes.'"

Jeff had worked briefly in e-commerce, so they decided to emblazon Bill's inspiration on T-shirts and market them over the web. "We had one slogan, one T-shirt, one coffee cup, one bumper sticker." Orders trickled in through their website, They hit the road, opening booths at peace demonstrations and Gay Pride Day parades. Their product line grew to include lines that were sometimes funnier ("Somewhere in Texas, there's a village missing an idiot"; "I'm bored. . . . Who do we invade next?"; "The last time people listened to a Bush, they wandered around the desert for 40 years") and sometimes a little too angry, a little too righteous, a little too flared-nostril, to be funny: "Mission Accomplished My Ass"; "No one Died When Clinton Lied"; "How Many Lives Per Gallon?"; "If you aren't completely appalled, you haven't been paying attention."

Now orders come in at a rate of 500 a day, not only for T-shirts and bumper stickers, but also for inflatable Bush dolls (the nose grows, Pinocchio-like, when you blow him up) and Bush playing cards and CDs featuring such songs as "I Hate Republicans" and "The Yeller Bush of Texas." Twenty-two employees work 12-hour shifts. Jeff and Bill hope to top a million dollars in sales by November 3, when, they insist, they will put themselves out of business, no matter who wins the election.

"I have to say we've changed our mission a bit since the beginning," Jeff said. "We thought we were just having fun, exercising our First Amendment right to poke fun at the president. But then we started getting these emails, it's really kind of touching. . . . We were really connecting with people in a serious way, too. 'Thank God we found you. You give us hope. It's about time there was a voice out there. . . .'

"And of course it just makes sense that the voice should come out of Austin."