When lawyers for George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign filed a federal complaint against the operator of a satirical website called GWBush.com, they did more than violate the Internet commandment to ignore obscure critics.
They set in motion a chain of events that gave Zack Exley a chance to help with the ultimate revenge -- unseating the president.
In April, Exley was named director of Internet organizing for presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, making him the Democrat’s field marshal on the technological front in the war for voters.
Exley’s unlikely rise from union organizer and small-time software programmer to top campaign operative mirrors the rapidly expanding role of the Internet in politics. More valuable than decades of slogging in the trenches of the major parties is a few years’ experience out in the free-form world of the Web -- a realm where the tools of the trade evolve every week and a joke can grab more attention than a thousand position papers.
Exley, 34, is already putting his skills to work.
Since joining Kerry’s headquarters in Washington, he has expanded the use of software, refining a system to let volunteers see where house meetings are being held in their neighborhoods. Exley also plans to build on the Howard Dean campaign’s Internet tools, giving more instruction to enthusiasts and supervising their activities more closely. And the campaign’s e-mails to supporters have gotten more conversational.
“The real [political] debate is among regular people, and the Internet makes it possible for that debate to happen in print from person to person, across states and across communities,” he said in an interview.
It’s a long way up from Exley’s early days as online political gadfly.
In 1999, his GWBush.com site was plastered with overtly doctored photos of Bush with cocaine residue under his nose, drawing the ire of the then-Texas governor’s presidential campaign. Exley said at the time he was angry that Bush was favoring tough sentences for drug possession while refusing, in Exley’s view, to fully address unproved allegations of past cocaine use.
In his new role, Exley has already become a target for Bush supporters.
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, cited the fake photos on GWBush.com in decrying his appointment as “a clear indication the Kerry campaign is going negative.”
The Bush campaign is also trying new things with the Net, and has assembled what consultants say is a top-flight team led by Chuck DeFeo.
DeFeo, a former aide to John Ashcroft when he was in the Senate, says he’s concentrating on getting Bush’s messages out to supporters, who can proselytize in turn. He frequently sends out e-mails to 6 million people, a much larger list than Kerry has, and tailors smaller missives by geography and areas of interest.
“We have been a very grass-roots-oriented campaign,” DeFeo said. “We believe there’s no one more powerful to spread the president’s message” than people on the street.
Staffers at the Bush campaign are especially proud of software that lets volunteers track their progress in recruiting others -- a program similar to one Exley introduced a year ago to his last employer, the left-leaning populist group MoveOn.org.
Some of the lessons Exley learned earlier in life are now serving him well in Internet politics.
He grew up middle-class in West Hartford, Conn., and took to computers in junior high school, designing his own video games on a Commodore VIC-20 so powerless that he had to write the program again each time he turned the computer on.
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Exley won a spot in an AFL-CIO training program for union organizers.
For seven months, he worked undercover at a Michigan auto parts factory. The unionization effort there failed, but Exley later used a team of infiltrators to successfully organize large nursing homes in Minnesota.
After five years, Exley moved to Boston, intending to write a book about the labor movement. He wrote software for big financial companies to pay the rent.
“I wanted to work on longer-term, bigger-picture change,” he said. “I had the feeling that the Internet, which was still very new then, could be used for grass-roots organizing, and I wanted to experiment.”
In December 1998, he poked around and saw that the Bush campaign had registered GeorgeWBush.com but not GWBush.com, and he bought two-year rights to that site for $70.
Exley got in touch with a loosely organized group of anticorporate activists and pranksters called RTMark (pronounced “art-mark”), and he asked them to develop content for the Bush site.
After the Bush campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that GWBush.com was subject to financial disclosure rules, hundreds of thousands of Internet users visited the site.
Exley took back editorial control and posted fake campaign statements under such headlines as “George II: Restoring the Throne to its Rightful Heir.” He also sold anti-Bush bumper stickers and posters through the website.
What really got the Bush campaign’s goat, however, were the phony pictures of Bush using drugs.
The FEC ultimately dismissed the Bush campaign’s complaint after deciding the issues at stake were too low a priority. The pictures remained on the site, which was no longer being updated as of last week.
All the attention spurred Exley to pursue more Internet activism.
In the fall of 2000, he mused on another website about the possibility that Democratic nominee Al Gore would win the popular vote -- yet lose in the electoral college. He urged voters to protest if that were to happen.
Few noticed his prediction until after the election, when it came true.
Overwhelmed with e-mail from potential protesters, Exley set up a system for distributing messages free to subscribers on eGroups, an electronic bulletin board system later bought by Yahoo. Thousands turned out for marches around the country, grabbing media time for the issue -- and for Exley himself.
“Without the Internet, there would have been no way for a single person to propose a day of protests, and for word of it to spread to so many people,” he wrote in the December 2000 issue of Mother Jones magazine. It would have required “acres of rented telemarketing space, thousands of volunteers and countless phone lines.”
Exley began trading ideas with Berkeley-based MoveOn.org, which had grown out of an Internet petition to Congress calling for an end to the impeachment hearings on President Clinton.
MoveOn hired Exley as organizing director early last year. Its staffers credit him with leading the group’s “virtual primary,” in which members voted electronically to demonstrate support for the various Democratic candidates.
He also helped create MoveOn’s competition to select the most effective anti-Bush commercials.
Exley also spent two weeks helping Dean’s technologically ambitious campaign. He showed the Dean staff how to use Meet- Up.com, which put volunteers together in living rooms around the country.
“He’s a geek, as most of us are here. And he’s able to bring that technological insight into how to reach people,” said MoveOn founder Wes Boyd.
But can an iconoclast fit in with the establishment he has long avoided?
In the days of GWBush.com, Exley told an interviewer that Democrats and Republicans were like “Coke and Pepsi -- they try to create a perception of difference where none exists.”
And after the Democrats lost ground in the 2002 midterm elections, he set up a now-defunct website called angrydems.com.
“Don’t blame 9/11,” Exley wrote then. “Don’t blame the Greens. And sure ... don’t blame the American people! Blame the Democratic Party leadership. Terry McAuliffe is an idiot.”
McAuliffe was then, and remains, the head of the Democratic National Committee.
Exley said his views had changed in the past year and a half, so that he was now more willing to work from within the establishment. “It just shows that George Bush was right when said he’d be a great uniter,” he quipped.
Some of Exley’s friends said they were concerned he would be handcuffed by a major campaign’s sense of propriety. Privately, he has fretted about having to work from an office instead of his studio apartment in Washington.
Andrew Boyd, of the satirical activist group Billionaires for Bush (no relation to Wes Boyd), isn’t worried. He said Exley would make any necessary adjustments to succeed at the Kerry campaign.
“They wouldn’t have invited him in without knowing who he was,” Boyd said. “He wants to win this election.”