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MoveOn, the Web, and the Peacenik Crusade
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 Femis, 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 one 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 facade 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.
Censure and Move On
Joan Blades remembers the beginning well. It was September 1998, and she and her husband were having lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Albany, California, a little town just north of Berkeley. Far away in Washington, the Clinton impeachment battle was raging, and Boyd and Blades, both supporters of the president, simply could not believe the nation's lawmakers would be wasting time on what they saw as a distraction from the real issues facing America. As it turned out, others in the restaurant--which was, of course, located in one of the most liberal areas in America--felt the same way. "We were hearing another table where people were saying, 'How can we be doing this?'" Blades told me. "We were just hearing all around us, 'This is crazy.'"
At the time, Boyd and Blades were beginning a new phase in their lives. The year before, they had sold their software company, Berkeley Systems, which had become famous for creating the "flying toaster" screensaver, as well as a video game called "You Don't Know Jack." Boyd and Blades have never said how much they got for the company, but some reports have placed the figure at $25 million. With their new fortune, they had new freedom, and they were looking for something to do. They had their eye on developing some sort of educational software, but by the fall of 1998, the idea had not yet become sufficiently focused to turn into reality. It never did--Blades told me she still hopes to get around to it someday--because after that moment of insight in the Chinese restaurant, they became consumed with a new cause.
When they got home, Blades, a lawyer who once taught mediation--she specialized in divorce, writing a book, Mediate Your Divorce, in 1985--drafted a one-sentence petition on the Clinton situation. It said, simply, "The Congress must immediately censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country." Boyd and Blades e-mailed the petition to friends and family members--fewer than a hundred people in all--asking each recipient to forward the e-mail to others. The response was amazing. "Within a week, we had a hundred thousand people sign it," Blades told me. And not only did Boyd and Blades have a new list of 100,000 potential activists, they had a way to use those names. MoveOn had asked each signer to give his ZIP code, which allowed Boyd and Blades to sort supporters by congressional district. They could then quickly match each e-mail address to a member of Congress, which meant they could urge specific people to get in touch with specific lawmakers on specific issues. The campaign, which Boyd and Blades called Censure and Move On, provided the building blocks for a new political organization.
The response convinced them they were on to something big. And while it certainly must have seemed that way--100,000 names on our petition!--Boyd and Blades's excitement was perhaps more the product of political naivete than anything else. Yes, a list of 100,000 e-mail addresses was useful. But in a country where well over 50 million people vote on each side in a presidential election, the response to MoveOn's petition did not, in itself, indicate the birth of a new political movement. Nevertheless, Boyd and Blades made extravagant claims for their new creation. "'Censure and Move On' is a 'flash campaign,' possible only through the organizing capabilities of the Internet," they wrote in their first public statement on September 22, 1998. "Using e-mail and the web, we can focus a broad and deep consensus in the American public into action."
Did they really believe they could halt impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives? I asked John Hlinko, a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who volunteered at MoveOn in the early days. "I didn't think that Henry Hyde and everyone would suddenly hold up their hands and say, 'Oh my God! E-mails! Run!'" Hlinko told me. "But I did think that if we could show enough momentum and enough support for stopping impeachment, at the fringes we could affect a few members who could go one way or the other." And if that didn't happen--if Congress ignored MoveOn's demand and opened an impeachment proceeding--Boyd and Blades said they would extend the "flash campaign" into a longer-term effort. "We will shift focus," they warned, "to highlighting this issue in the fall  elections."
When the House indeed opened an impeachment inquiry, Boyd and Blades made good on their threat. According to Federal Election Commission records, they formed MoveOn PAC, their political action committee, on October 23, 1998. Filing the paperwork with the FEC, Boyd wrote "Censure and Move On" in the space provided for the organization's name. He then crossed that out and wrote, simply, "MoveOn.org." Boyd gave the organization $1,000 of his own money--the only funds MoveOn PAC had at that time--and announced a wide-ranging effort to defeat Republicans in the elections, which were then just one week away. Citing a "huge groundswell of public feeling," Boyd and Blades promised to direct their new followers--neatly sorted by ZIP code and electoral district--to oppose any member of Congress who voted for impeachment.
Of course, even to suggest that a $1,000, seven-day campaign might have a noticeable effect on nationwide elections was just short of delusional. And on Election Day, Republicans kept control of the House. But the GOP lost five seats, hanging on to power by the barest majority. And then, a few days after the voting, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to step down. To Boyd and Blades, it felt like victory. "When the election happened, we went, 'Whew, we did it,'" Blades told me.
But they hadn't done it; on December 19, 1998, the House voted to impeach Clinton. Boyd and Blades responded by launching a "We Will Remember" campaign to defeat impeachment leaders in the 2000 elections. But MoveOn PAC still had no money; it had not received any contributions since Boyd's original $1,000 stake. So on December 30, 1998, Boyd gave another $4,000, while Blades gave $5,000, and Boyd's family gave $2,000. That brought the PAC's entire take to $12,000. Boyd and Blades also loaned the organization $5,229 to cover operating expenses. It was a very small start.
Then MoveOn took off. In early 1999, Boyd and Blades sent out a stream of calls to action--and requests for contributions--as the impeachment trial ran its course in the Senate. Thousands of people responded; in 1999 and 2000, the "We Will Remember" campaign brought in a total of $2.29 million for MoveOn PAC. Nearly all of that, $2.13 million, came in the form of what are known as "conduit receipts," meaning contributions that were sent to MoveOn for the purpose of being passed on to specific House and Senate candidates. By the time the 2000 elections came around, MoveOn had targeted thirty House and Senate races across the country, earmarking 100 percent of its contributions for Democratic candidates. (Although Boyd and Blades called MoveOn a "nonpartisan" organization with a "nonpartisan agenda," that nonpartisanship did not include supporting any Republicans.)
The effort failed. In November 2000, Democrats again fell short of winning control of either house of Congress, and overall, the results were less satisfying than in 1998, when MoveOn believed it had won a moral victory. To make matters worse, most of the hated impeachment managers kept their seats. And of course, in 2000, the big political story was not the House or the Senate but the presidential election. In that, MoveOn simply was not a player--it appears to have made no direct contributions to any presidential candidates, having chosen instead to stay focused on the impeachment revenge campaign.
But by the end of 2000, with the Florida recount raging, the "We Will Remember" effort seemed increasingly an artifact of an earlier era. Having failed to achieve its original goal, MoveOn seemed out of ideas. Membership dropped. Energy waned. I asked Blades what she and Boyd intended to do when the anti-impeachment campaign had played itself out. "We thought we were going away," she told me. "We had no plan on going past 2000." Boyd and Blades had ridden Democratic anger over the impeachment for as long as they could, and then a bit longer. And then they realized that they, too, had to move on.
From the Trade Paperback edition.