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Moderate Democrat Takes Republicans’ Money
Guest Editorial by Jimm Lasser

“Have you signed up to help President Bush save social security? You get a
free donut.”

It is early and I am setting up my table. The sounds around me are uncommon. There are political talking points being rattled off, pitches, pleas. Social Security. Homeland Security. Insecurity.

I am untucked and sideburned, so I get a few stares. The men around me are different than the ones I left behind in Brooklyn. They wear 1960s Mercury Astronaut haircuts and suits that look as though they dropped straight from the womb into them. They awkwardly rush about, buttoning and unbuttoning their suits, walk-sprinting with cell phones, and sharing with everyone what time they left the bar last night. The women are unlike anything either. They are for the most part attractive, blonde, and smiling so broadly their pant suits crease under the strain. And I overhear no “dude,” “um” or “whatever.” All sentences had subjects and verbs and ended with sentences. Quite impressive.

I am in Arlington, VA, for three muggy days in June. What better way to spend a summer weekend than at the National College Republican Convention. The youngest and brightest of the GOP assemble to hear speeches from their Republican heroes, attend workshops, and play grown-up for a weekend by putting on their own convention. And as a moderate democrat, I am enjoying the opportunity to experience something most of my peers have never seen: how the “other” half lives. And, most importantly, seeing what the other half thinks of my designs.

“So how does your organization serve God?”

I look up to find my new neighbor here, a representative from Pat Robertson’s Regent University, talking to an interested young mind. He is making his way down the line of tables, asking people this wonderful question. He is a man with a finely trimmed beard (who trims their beard in college?) I try to look busy with unpacking, hoping to duck the magic question. No dodging though. It comes.

“My T-shirts, I guess.” I answer to the man as I turn around with an armful of T-shirts depicting Lincoln about to engage in group sex, “I want young people to take an interest in politics, so this is my way of making it cool to them.”

This is a true statement. I am just trying to replicate what Schoolhouse Rock did in the 1970s: to take dusty subjects perceived to be boring, and give them a hipper spin to spark interest. My answer arouses a “wonderful” and a “HE thanks you” (God? W?).

I put my shirts out. I take my seat. This is it. A design challenge like no other. Design annuals and props from your creative director are one thing, but testing your mettle in the marketplace is what really defines good design. And if design is about communication, there is no better proving ground for your work than political nerds. Because to them, it is all about the message. The colors, kerning and print quality are all secondary considerations. They just want that message on their chests to sing, baby.

The T-shirt has emerged over the last few years as the way to make yourself heard. A T-shirt is your personal architecture. If your T-shirt demands a second look, sparks a conversation between strangers, or reveals you, it is an effective piece of design. I hope the college Republicans agree mine are worthy.

After setting up my table, I made the rounds scouting the T-shirt competition. Fortunately, they have an on-line presence, so you, the humble reader, can make your own opinions.

Competitor number one: Freedom Gear. These are shirts with a real attitude to them. Chris Green, the articulate sole proprietor of the business calls himself less a designer, and more of a “grassroots organizer.”

“I do lots of gun shows,” he says wearing his popular anti-gay marriage rant: �Mom & Dad NOT Tom & Brad.’

“This one kills them.” He holds up a shirt with a mock Social Security Card that just says �Security’ and a name imprinted on the card that says �I.B. Packing.’ One theme important to Chris’ work is the French and their opposition to U.S. Foreign Policy. He has a number of big sellers from this genre. Aside from his politics, I like Chris. We talk freely about 2008, Pearl Harbor and the media�s biased color theory:

“Did you know the media used to color the democratic states red, and the republican states blue? The networks switched in the 1980s because red means communism, and they didn’t want anyone associating that with the democrats. Isn’t that incredible media bias?”

“Wow,” was all I could manage. And a “That’s very interesting.” We talk some more. His shirts get strong laughs from passersby. When they laugh, Chris pauses mid-sentence, looks the laugher sternly in the eye and says “I’m glad you appreciate the humor in that.” It’s Chris’ way of really saying, “I�m glad you and I see the same way politically.” T-shirts are just Chris’ way of making connections with the likeminded. His designs might be somewhat crude to the trained designer, but his pick-up truck tone makes his work interesting. I smile at an image of a French soldier waving a white flag of surrender; the slogan: “French Resistance.” Chris tells it straight. To further the point that �it’s the message stupid,’ Chris only prints on black T-shirts. It’s like Chris is the Henry Ford of T-shirts: they can have any color shirt they want as long as it is black. Just as Mr. Ford was focused on what was under the hood, Chris Green is focused on the message.

Competitor number two is 0cents (pronounced “oh cents.”). This is run by an older gentleman with a red nose and witty quip for every question I ask him. He has a thick book of iron-on transfer designs. These are not your super-sweet-retro-Donkey-Kong-Dukes-of-Hazzard-iron-ons. These are kind of crappy. The designs remind me of the standard resort town T-shirt you might buy with a shark-tooth necklace. And he has this press that resembles a refitted George Foreman grill that presses the decal to the shirt. Red nose is working the variety angle!

“Hi,” I begin, “I’m selling down the row, I’m from Sharp as Toast.”

Old red nose fails to give me his name, but lets me know that he’s “Never
heard of it” and that he is “busy.”

I nod my head in understanding. I step away and watch him work. He is a bit more expanded than Chris. His shirts come in your choice of heather grey or white beefy Tees. (what diya what? white or wheat?). His booth is also surrounded by more than shirts: red blinky lapel pins, aprons, police badges that are emblazoned with “Pajama Patrol” (don’t ask), bumper stickers, posters. I engage him again,

“How many shirts do you typically sell at one of these events?”

He smiles with a big red “never enough!”

“What’s your best seller?”

“They’re all winners!”

And on and on. It was about as informative as a post game interview with the star player. A real assface. I leave determined to sell more than him.

Tom Delay and other speakers have held the conventioneers rapt for hours. But its lunch and the rush begins. The kids converge. My �Kick a Commie for Ronnie’ shirt is a big hit.

“That is the coolest shirt ever” a gum-chewing guy from New Jersey sputters. Another mammoth of a milk-fed hoss from Nebraska is looking for a XXL. “Sorry,” I break the news, “I only have Nixon shirts in XXL.” He spits back “Why? Reagan is so much better than Nixon.” He takes off his jacket and goes and tries on a XL Reagan anyway. He comes back looking like a sausage. “Okay, he says, this won’t work.” Marsha Brady’s clone then trots over. She looks to be hand-dipped in Tom Delay buttons, I counted twelve in all. “Do you have any George P. Bush shirts?” She settles for a Ronnie. A tall kid comes over. He wants a �Chester A. Arthur is Totally A. Awesome’ shirt. “We have the original deed to our farm signed by President Arthur he beams,” as he gobbles one up. A small boy comes over from Charlottesville. He is here with his father who is peddling conservative books. He is eleven years old and wants a �TAFT: Can you dig it’ shirt. As he leaves I wonder if he understands the double reference to Shaft. Sales are suddenly brisk, and then there is quiet. Recess is over and more activities have begun.

I want to know my audience a bit better, so I slip into some of the convention events. A heated debate between CRNC Chairman candidates Paul Gourley and Tom Davidson is on before a solidly split crowd of delegates. Both Paul and Tom have blonde female vice presidential candidates who take part in the debate as well. One girl says she will “empower” and the other said she will “inspire.” Back and forth they go. Each cleverly slipping in their buzzword over and over again, no matter how awkward and tangential it seemed. The guys are no better. Tom reminds us each time about his endorsements, and Paul cast the race as a battle between “Hick versus Slick” (Paul gladly taking a cue from W casts himself as the Hick). One thing about the Republicans, they like their strong messages and they stick to them. I can see how Chris Green sells his shirts.

Next there is a Reagan 80s party. How, you might ask is a Reagan 80s party different from the average 80s party you may have sheepishly attended? Less Prince and more John Cougar. There are lots of longnecks, Shar-don-ays and a Fajita bar (remember that Fajita period in �85?). I make some small talk. A lot of “whatsup” “whereya from?” and “who you like in ’08?” I have my fill and wander back to my stand and make some more sales.

By the end the scoreboard tells the story: Sharp As Toast: 38 shirts sold, Freedom Gear: 16 shirts sold, 0cents: “never enough” shirts sold (though I’d guess about 20).

I feel good. My shirts won. Rather than inflame our differences, I feel my designs serve some real good. They are a uniting point in a very divisive political climate. Today validated that. I have sold to Democrats before, and now I have sold directly to Republicans. It’s beautiful. These old presidents, cast in a colorful, fun light seem to be one thing people can agree on. It makes me hope that deep down, past all the spit and rancor between the right and left, there is still something unifying in Honest Lincoln and the Spirit of �76: Beneath it all we’re still Americans, and we still think that’s pretty cool.

I pack up. I see a couple holding hands, both sporting �Keep it Coolidge’ T-shirts. I have a few friends that are Democrats that own that shirt. I secretly hope they all bump into each other one day and have a laugh at Calvin Coolidge’s expense.

That’s the power of good design.

Jimm Lasser, Esq. (1974-    )
On the stormy morning of Sunday, December 9, 1974, Nancy Lasser, wife of Alan, gave birth to a boy. He was born on a bed of poles covered with corn husks. The baby was named Jimm, after Comedian Red Foxx. The birth took place in the Lasser’s rough-hewn cabin in Winnetka near Chicago, Illinois. Alan Lasser was a dermatologist and a farmer. Nancy Lasser had little or no accounting schooling and could not write french poetry. Jimm spent a short amount of time in a log schoolhouse, before graduating from the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University School of Law, and the Portfolio Center. Jimm attended school dressed in a raccoon cap, buckskin clothes, and pants so short that several inches of his calves were exposed. Jimm earned his first dollar ferrying passengers to a steamer on the Ohio River, and designing T-shirts for the 84-year old James Toast at sharpastoast.com. He was a member of the charter class of John Bielenberg’s Project M, spoke out against the Dred Scott Decision, and has won many decorations for valor in battle.

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.01.2005 BY Speak Up
Matt’s comment is:

Its an interesting commentary on your designs that I, despite being a moonbat liberal of the most extreme degree, like your t-shirts as much as the attendees at this right-wingnut event that you attended. You've somehow stumbled upon the perfect sweet-spot between irony and sincerity, allowing the user to intepret them entirely according to their own deeply held beliefs. I have to ask though, was this deliberate when you first designed them?

On Jul.01.2005 at 09:23 AM
Rob’s comment is:

I think it's great that you've managed to manipulate both sides of the political jungle into thinking your shirts were meant just for them. As was previously asked, was this your own 'political' point being made or just luck of the design and the politcally correct characters? Did you actually strategize on who you would feature and what would they say in order to rouse both sides to conversation, intrigue and of course, purchase?

On Jul.01.2005 at 01:30 PM
Jimm Lasser’s comment is:

Fair question. I really truly began this as a way to get my peers interested in politics, civics...at least voting. I think our past Presidents reflect a shared heritage that escape the current partisan battles. I remember how effective (and cool) "Schoolhouse Rock" was. If I can cross party lines with these, I feel I have accomplished a great deal. Also..I have had other shirt designs that are not political, but those have gradually been phased out as I've focused more on what originally inspired me.

On Jul.01.2005 at 03:33 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

We live in one of the most indifferent and self-absorbed societies imaginable--anything that puts a hold on that is a good thing. T-shirts make for an interesting medium, unexpected and devoid of pretense.

The trick is getting both sides to talk to each other. Day after day, the extremists and crazies from both sides of the spectrum do what they can to affirm their position and drive each other further from one another. Sad.

I wonder if there are current topics that you could address in a similar manner?

On Jul.01.2005 at 09:30 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

This was a great post. I laughed out loud. I even followed the links (which is saying something, for me). And, with the previous commenters, it is an interesting experiment in design, finding the 2-way street of interpretation.

Plus, good business sense.

You have more patience than I, though. In that environment I would crack after about ... 15 minutes? I think Freedom Gear alone would cause me to ask, "You don't by any chance have a gun I could borrow for a sec, do you?"

On Jul.02.2005 at 02:45 AM
ryan peterson’s comment is:

Great Post, I checked out your site last week, and it was highly entertaing to hear how your shirts went over at the conference.

Of your shirts, I'm a big fan of the "Escape Wisconsin" shirt inparticular. Born and raised in WI, I now live in Iowa, but its crazy the magnetic effect WI has on people who have lived there, especially the Madison area. Seems so many people I know have moved from Madison only to move back again. Love it, I'd wear it with pride. (Until the day I eventually move to Madison)

Any discounts for Speakup readers?

On Jul.05.2005 at 01:14 PM
Jimm’s comment is:

Ryan, I moved after a 2.5 year stint in Madison to NYC last Sept. Wonderful place. As far as a discount, Mr. Toast is generally against them. If you butter him up he will get you a patch, a pin, and some other goodies. Thank you for the support!

On Jul.05.2005 at 05:33 PM
Spankthatdonkey’s comment is:

Jimm's shirts Rock!!!


Chris Green

PS wait till you see the 2006 line....

On Jan.05.2006 at 10:26 PM
Armin’s comment is:

This thread is closed due to above-average spamming.

On May.10.2006 at 11:02 AM