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07.05.10

Donkeygate! Bush Officials Banned the Democrat Mascot

In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress approved a magazine designed to win over Arab hearts and minds. In an excerpt from his new book, The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane, Randall Lane describes how Bush officials forbade using photographs of a donkey, in order to avoid any positive reflection of Democrats.

Those of us who were in New York on 9/11—in fact, everyone who was in America—can attest to the overwhelming feeling of needing to do something, anything, to pitch in. In the days and weeks following that awful day, I spent all night feeding rescue workers at Ground Zero, volunteered to give blood that wasn’t needed and wrote stories about the heroes and victims. It didn’t seem enough. So I put forward the sharpest skill set I had, starting magazines, which put me smack in the middle of the one of the uglier, untold stories of the Bush administration.

As part of a public diplomacy program similar to Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, the State Department had allocated more than $4 million a year to launch a magazine about American culture, which would be translated into Arabic and sold across the Arab world. (A TV station, Al Hurra, and Radio Sawa were launched around the same time.) Other than a corny name, Hi!, the one English word everyone on the planet knows, it was an empty vessel.

The Bush official held up the offending photo, as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting, and pointed to a pack mule that, by other names, might be known as a donkey.

To fill it, the State Department hired a highly regarded Washington-based custom media company, TMG, which in turn hired me. Working with a squad of Arab-born Americans, including a smart, opinionated Libyan, a poetic Syrian, and a diligent Palestinian, I would craft America’s public face for the part of the world that hated us most, as translated via the cover and substance of a glossy magazine.

It was fun distilling America every month, explaining baseball, or the culture of Silicon Valley, or the new battle between smokers’ rights groups and public health advocates. While I had credentials on both sides of political spectrum (I had been the Washington bureau chief for Forbes, but also consider myself a social liberal), I had taken the gig on the promise that it would be politics-free. There was nothing to be gained as either a propagandist or an apologist. Culture is the first building block to understanding.

But as the memory of 9/11 began to fade, so did the magazine’s utopian mission. Congressmen began complaining that rather than show young Arabs how Western society works, Hi! should tell them why American policies are right. The initiative’s leadership got incrementally political: The undersecretary for public diplomacy, a former advertising CEO named Charlotte Beers, was replaced by a veteran from the previous Bush administration, Margaret Tutwiler, and then, eventually, by President Bush’s top image-maker, Karen Hughes. A State Department panel of ham-fisted political appointees now began actively reviewing our content before we printed it, as the new war in Iraq turned increasingly unpopular.

book-cover---the-zeroes
The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane. By Randall Lane. 368 Pages. Portfolio Hardcover. $27.95. ()

One of my favorite sections loosely translated to “Window on America.” It was a simple conceit: a photo essay showing what America actually looks like, unfiltered. A bass fishing tournament, a breast-cancer walk, the Puerto Rican Day parade—these were exotic images to most Arabs, too often poisoned about the United States by their inflammatory local press. But during one review meeting, held before a star chamber of 10 high-level State Department officials, the co-leader specifically took offense to a photograph from a classic Western scene: campers and pack mules heading out on a rugged weekend expedition.

Our team always remained vigilant about cultural sensibilities, avoiding the bottoms of shoes, or bare arms, or other seemingly innocuous images that could backfire with the Arab audience. This official’s concerns, however, were more parochial. She held up the offending photo, as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting, and pointed to a pack mule that, by other names, might be known as a donkey. This has to go, she said. Too pro-Democrat. And out it went.

While Hi’s funding would be pulled in late 2005, that was the moment I knew it was time to do something else. I had been offered the chance to co-found a series of glossy magazines and websites for the Wall Street community. Considering this opportunity, I thought about an incident in Morocco.

Part of developing and improving Hi! included a two-week trip across the Arab world, interviewing hundreds of young adults from Abu Dhabi to Beirut about their views of the United States. The most memorable session had been a near riot in Casablanca, where 200 college journalism students, enthralled by the opportunity to rail against Americans, packed into a classroom built for 50 and blasted invective for two hours, as our small group, including one embassy official, tried to parry. (“Half of these kids have never seen an American in person,” the school’s dean told us beforehand. “They wanted to be sure you all didn’t have guns.”)

Afterward, the crowd rushed us and the meager security scrambled—unnecessarily, it turned out. Politics time was over. How do I get a job in America? we were asked, with urgency. How can I get a visa? How can I make my fortune?

One student, wearing a red leather jacket, wanted detailed advice on how he could start a website exposing Moroccans to the wonders of heavy metal. “Ozzy rules,” he said as his salutation, his pinky, pointer, and thumb outstretched in perfect formation. For the next few months, I mentored him in his quest to introduce Arabs to a less-obvious piece of American culture.

Another student, in a blue sweater-vest, shyly waited his turn. He pulled me aside as we were about to leave, with an equally pressing query about what he heard was going on in America: How can I become a stock trader? A decade that had really started on 9/11—everything before had just been ’90s flotsam—with the idea of creating a greater purpose from a horrific tragedy would instead ultimately be defined by the financial markets.

Randall Lane is editor at large at The Daily Beast. The former editor in chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and P.O.V. Magazines, and the former Washington bureau chief of Forbes, he is the author of The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane.