Tempest From a Teapot 

For MoveOn’s Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, politics begins and ends at home

Thursday, Aug 5 2004
Illustrations by Julie West

Activism used to be arduous. Not anymore. Click a button, move a mouse, and bingo — you’re in the world of online political campaigning. A few more clicks and you can sign petitions to Congress protesting the war, the Clean Air Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. You can demand that President Bush be censured, call for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and urge Congress and the FTC to revoke Fox News’ right to use “Fair and Balanced” as its slogan. All without leaving your chair. It’s activism made easy — maybe too easy. Why, it’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for politicians.

Much of this is thanks to Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, 40-something founders of the liberal Internet advocacy group MoveOn.org. Back in the 1980s, Boyd started a computer-software company called Berkeley Systems. His first major work was to develop software that allowed blind and visually impaired people to use a computer. One program, inLarge, magnified onscreen characters up to 16 times their normal size. Another, OutSPOKEN, used the Mac’s built-in voice synthesizer to convert visual icons into sound. Then Boyd struck gold with a series of screensavers, of which the “flying toasters” one was the best known. Online game shows such as You Don’t Know Jack followed. By the time Boyd and Blades (who are married) sold the company in 1997, Berkeley Systems had 150 employees and $30 million in sales.

The next year, 1998, was the year America went mad. There was Bill Clinton on television, red-faced and defiant, wagging his finger at the camera and saying, I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Some people believed him and didn’t care; some people didn’t believe him and didn’t care; and some people didn’t believe him and cared very, very much. Most of the last group were Republicans, and a few of them were congressmen and senators, and Boyd and Blades didn’t agree with their views at all. In fact, it’s probably fair to say they hated them. And so, one night over dinner, they decided to do something about it. They sent out a one-sentence e-mail to about a hundred friends, calling on Congress to “censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing our nation.” Their friends sent it to their friends, who passed it on to their friends, and soon they had received a staggering 400,000 replies to their e-mail petition. Without even trying, they had achieved instant fame as pioneering Internet activists. MoveOn, the online organization they eventually formed in response to these events, now has 2.2 million members in the U.S. (registration is free), with another 800,000 or so abroad. In 2000 it raised over $2 million from small donations, and tasted sweet revenge by helping defeat some of the Republicans who had tried to impeach Bill Clinton. MoveOn was quiet during the Florida recount of 2001, but 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought it roaring back to life.

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At the recent Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., Boyd and Blades were welcomed like conquering heroes. If people had had flowers, they would have thrown them. “It’s so incredible to actually revere people,” gushed Arianna Huffington, the MC for a gala dinner at which the entire MoveOn team was presented with the Paul Wellstone Citizenship Award. “And I do revere all the people of MoveOn.org!”

Later, during the dessert course of crème brûlée wrapped in a dark-chocolate shell overlaid with a raspberry sauce, Peter Schurman, MoveOn’s executive director, asked if anyone among the 800 people sitting around the ballroom’s 80 tables, each of which glimmered with candles and flowers, had at some point during the last year taken action at least once with MoveOn. If so, would they please stand? Everyone laughed, and then almost everyone in the ballroom of the Washington Marriott Hotel stood up.

After the dinner, unable to get anywhere near Boyd and Blades, who were surrounded by admirers, I ran into Moby, who had been responsible for providing the evening’s musical entertainment. He was wearing a black T-shirt that said “Fanny Pack, NYC” on it, jeans and a zippered jacket. With his glasses and bony skull, he looked more like a computer nerd than anyone on the MoveOn staff did. “It’s funny, because they’ve all become sort of political celebrities,” he noted. “None of them expected that, none of them anticipated it. I think they’re all a little taken aback [at having gone from] being smart nerdy kids in their bedrooms with computers, and suddenly they’re national political stars.”

Joan Blades and Wes Boyd(Photos by Christine Jegan)

“Do you think they’ll be satisfied by a Kerry victory, or will they keep pushing?”

“I don’t know what their plans are after Bush loses the next election.”

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