When Jon Cowan and Rob Nelson arrived on the Washington scene three years ago, the capital fell in love. The two twentysomethings were idealistic, savvy and cute--a cross between Robert Kennedy and Kato Kaelin. They formed a group called Lead . . . Or Leave, challenging members of Congress to cut the deficit-or get out of town. One hundred and one lawmakers took the pledge. Ross Perot praised the pair's spunk. U.S. News & World Report put them on its cover, hailing them as "the vanguard of the twentysomething backlash."
But Lead . . . Or Leave shut its doors this month. Cowan and Nelson closed their office, disconnected their phone and sent out resumes-just as Congress begins to debate entitlement reform, the very issue the two championed. Short on cash and on troops to lead, they have decided to leave. "If there have ever been smoke-and-mirror organizers, it's these two guys," says Heather McLeod, an editor of Who Cares, a magazine about youth activism. Telegenic and good at spin, Nelson and Cowan had short attention spans for the details of grass-roots organizing. They got around that problem by inflating membership numbers. Their literature boasted they represented 1 million people, but the pair acknowledges that only 1130,000 either gave money or attended Lead . . . Or Leave events. "There was fudging," admits Andrew Weinstein. who briefly worked as the group's communications director.
And the duo's cheekiness sometimes veered into immaturity. When they stuck a condom in a mailing to illustrate the need to "practice safe politics" by reforming spending, one conservative quit their board. At a meeting with the chief of staff of Sen. Bob Kerrey's blue-ribbon Entitlements Commission, the pair showed up in shorts. "They walked around like MTV stars wearing purple sunglasses and never returned anyone's phone calls." says Paul Hewitt, who started Americans for Generational Equity, a similar (and now defunct) group.
Cowan and Nelson think other activists are just jealous. To its credit, the group raised $13 million, said it registered 175,000 college students to vote and drew 500 young leaders to two youth summits. "They did a tremendous service to this entire debate," says Heather Lamm of The Concord Coalition, a respected anti-deficit group.
Cowan and Nelson admit they have been arrogant at times but, as Cowan explains, "Sometimes you have to be a butthead to get things done." They claim they're going to hire someone to run a sealed-back version of the group, but few believe Lead...Or Leave will exist without what came to be known as "The Jon and Rob Show." Nelson, now 30, is contemplating law school and
Cowan, also 30, hopes to be "part of a visionary leadership." But they still promise to make a big splash in the '96 campaign. "We will burn social-security cards in New Hampshire," says Cowan. "It's such an incredibly powerful image." And image is the one thing Cowan and Nelson have always understood.