News & Politics

"Kiss My Ashcroft" -- Sloganeering in the Nation's Capital

Claude Taylor, the Johnny Appleseed of bumper stickers, says he's given away 50,000 pieces of anti-Bush propaganda already, with many more to come.


In a second floor storefront, just North of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., Claude Taylor is pacing and free associating, putting his trench coat on and taking it off. "I'm sorry, I haven't slept in a couple of days and I've had too much coffee," he confides. "I'll focus in a second."

On the counter in front of Taylor are thousands of bumper stickers: "Hail to the thief;" "A thousand points of light and we got the dim one;" "Welcome To D.C., you piece of shrub." Large posters and T-shirts with similar messages hang out of open windows as the damp, chilly D.C. air fills up the room. Outside of Taylor's window sits his Volvo station wagon, every window filled with a big poster. It's a bit reminiscent of obsessed protestors who show up at demonstrations in cars overflowing with propaganda, only Taylor's car is neat and suburban.

A block and a half south, a few thousand people are braving the raw weather to hear NOW's Patricia Ireland blast an administration that will be sworn in later in the day. Throughout the crowd are Taylor's neatly printed posters, lending an air of organized preparedness amidst a sea of scruffy homegrown signs.

Back in Taylor's space, a couple of protestors wander upstairs, attracted by the T-shirts hanging out of the window.

"Can we buy a bumper sticker?" one asks. Taylor begins to line up piles of bumper stickers like a poker player metes out chips.

"Which ones do you like?" he asks.

"I like, 'Equal Protection My Ass,'" says the woman who hails from Brooklyn.

"Are you women part of a group of activists?"

The two women nod yes. Taylor starts to give them hundreds of various bumper stickers, stops and walks into a side room and returns with handfuls of buttons. The women look confused.

"Don't worry," Taylor says, "They are all free. Just make sure you give them to your friends." The women smile, take their goodies and head out the door.

"I'm a professional photographer, and I had a great holiday season at my store up the street," says Taylor. "This is my Christmas bonus to the people."

Claude Taylor, the Johnny Appleseed of bumper stickers, says he's given away 50,000 already, with many more to come. Taylor is hoping that individuals and activist groups will order them from his web site, www.votescount2002.com, where he's offering them for free or almost-free.

"What do you think should be the next one?" he asks me.

"How about something to do with Ashcroft," I suggest.

"OK, let's see," he brainstorms. "How about 'Kiss My Ashcroft'? Good. I can have 2500 of those on your desk by Friday."

In a world of cheap slogans and 15-second sound bites, the bumper sticker has become ubiquitous. As someone once said, if you can't fit it on a bumper sticker, you're not going to win in American politics. And Claude Taylor has it down.

"Who thinks these lines up?" I ask.

"I do," says Taylor, "except for 'Hail to the Thief.' That actually is from 1876, when Rutherford Hayes got to be president in a similar smelly deal."

"What exactly happened then?" I follow up.

"Don't ask me to do your homework," Taylor barks. "Didn't you read your history books? The important thing is that Hayes was a one-termer, and the Supreme Court that guaranteed his election went down in infamy. Hayes was called 'His Fraudulencey.'"

I change the subject, wondering how Taylor embarked on his crusade. "I got my start as a canvasser for Mass Fair Share many years ago," he says. "I was the best canvasser that summer. I made $12,000, which was a lot for a kid. But when I left, I gave a speech saying that I had had enough of working hard to get 30 percent of the take so the leaders could get rich."

He then points to a nicely framed photo of himself with Bill Clinton hanging on the wall. "I was a middle level Clinton staffer," he offers, continuing his story. "In '92 I sold bumper stickers and T-shirts at the Clinton/Gore office in LA, and made a ton of money for the campaign. Bumper stickers are the first draft of history. The only thing I'm really good at is bumper stickers, key chains, decals, posters, T shirts..."

I interrupt him before he recites more. "Why did you leave Clinton?"

"In '92 we were the rebellion," he explains. "In '96 we were the empire. Governing sucked. Governing is no fun." Indeed, all the bumper stickers credit 'Mad Dog Design,' a name Taylor came up with "because I'm a pissed off Democrat. There are the Blue Dog Democrats, Republicans masquerading as Democrats; there are the Yellow Dogs, conservative Democrats left over from the FDR days. And now the Mad Dogs."

Taylor looks out the window onto Connecticut Avenue. "There's going to be a big limo gridlock out here tonight. We're entering the era of the big: Big hair, big jewels, big tits, big fur and big cars, and all those white limos, because these Texans are tacky. Everything is big but the ideas. They tend to be small."

We wonder up the street to Taylor's store and gallery, the Left Bank. The store is closed. It's been closed for days. Taylor admits to losing thousands of dollars a day by not opening up. When his wife arrives to meet us, he whispers to me, "Don't forget to mention my wife in your article. She tolerates all this; she knows I'm crazy."

In contrast to the chaos a few stores down, Left Bank is a rich environment of French tchotchkes, fine posters and Taylor's photographs. He's only been a professional photographer for two years, he says, but the guy clearly has talent.

"You mentioned Global Exchange," Taylor says, pointing out one of his pictures. "Look at this photo from Cuba. I was down there for three weeks. I could tell them stories about their literacy campaigns."

I thank Taylor for his time and wander back to Dupont Circle. Another ex-Clinton/Gore guy with a web site is haranguing the slimmed down crowd with rhetoric fit for a lefty state of the union address. The cold and the mud have sent many to the warmth of Starbucks across the street. Others have already left to make their way to Pennsylvania Avenue, where they will confront the Bush motorcade with the largest inaugural demonstration since Nixon's in 1972.

Even with reduced numbers, posters are everywhere, including some lying abandoned in brown puddles. There seems to be an Eleventh Commandment in DC -- Thou shall not attend a rally without a poster.

In some ways the homemade ones are more funky and appealing than Taylor's -- "I Thought I Was Living in a Democracy;" "Electoral College = Fuzzy Math;" "Pro-Life, Fine. Just Stay out of Mine" -- but they aren't nearly as clever or polished. Taylor's posters, and his bumper stickers, buttons, T-Shirts, etc; they have a future. These simple tools clearly carry the messages of anger and contempt, the slogans and one-liners that will spread through the land, and give all of us who feel frustration, or just a sense of ludicrousness, a simple way to communicate our feelings.
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