Shannon Bartlett's knee started aching after the first mile. As she pushed farther into the AIDS Run/Walk Chicago, the pain migrated to the outside of the joint, then arrowed up her thigh. Bartlett persisted, though. She was running for a cause she desperately wants to promote: the defeat of George W. Bush.
Last Saturday was National Run Against Bush Day, and after the 5K was over Bartlett, a 26-year-old attorney, flopped in the grass behind the Columbia Yacht Club, joining a circle of runners in robin's-egg blue "Run Against Bush" T-shirts. Her father, Bob, hovered over her, toting a backpack with a picture of her brother Adam pinned to the pocket. Adam is a specialist in the army's 101st Airborne. Four years ago he enlisted as a way out of working three low-wage jobs to make a living. After the Iraq invasion he was put to work fueling helicopters. For now he's back at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, but he'll be headed overseas again in January.
"When he was in Iraq it was absolutely brutal," Bartlett said. "I wasn't reading the papers, I wasn't watching the news. When I heard two helicopters from the 101st Airborne went down I was terrified something had happened to him."
Bartlett's fears for her brother and anger about the war have hardened her attitude toward Bush from dislike to disgust. "I just have such a visceral reaction to the man," she said. "When I see his face on TV or hear his voice on the radio I turn it off. . . . What's driving me now is my absolute--I'm about to say hatred. It's wrong to say hatred, but I'm so upset about the way the country is going."
Not since Richard Nixon has a president been loathed so deeply by so many. But Nixon's enemies never jogged through parks in T-shirts demanding his removal. Bush's divisive personality has helped Run Against Bush grow into a movement. So has the Internet, which in some ways has become to the left what talk radio was to the right during the Clinton administration.
Run Against Bush was hatched last fall in a D.C. tavern by four nonpoliticos inspired by charities that enlist marathoners to raise money for AIDS and cancer research. "We decided to do a personal run against Bush," says 30-year-old Marc Laitin, a high school economics teacher who directs the national organization. "I'd never run before in my life, but since then I've tried to run three or four times a week. Right now I'm training for the Marine Corps Marathon."
In its first year of existence Run Against Bush has recruited 6,000 members and collected $150,000 for the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry campaign. On Saturday, Run Against Bush cells raced or jogged in 38 states.
"The single most common thing I hear from our organizers is that they haven't been previously involved in politics," Laitin says. "This is individual, entrepreneurial political activity. The Kerry campaign is so big it
doesn't have the capacity to identify my strengths and weaknesses. We're able to execute a plan in a way that the Kerry campaign can't."
Since it hit the Internet in February, Run Against Bush has spun off Bike Against Bush, whose members rode in Sunday's North Shore Century from Evanston to Kenosha and back. Today there seems to be an anti-Bush group for every social niche: Babes Against Bush, Bands Against Bush, Republicans Against Bush, even Knitters Against Bush.
Run Against Bush spread through word of mouth and street visibility. One of Bartlett's colleagues heard about it from a friend in New York. After she and three fellow lawyers started the Chicago chapter, they wore their T-shirts on Tuesday-night jogs in Grant Park, at the Shamrock Shuffle 8K in March, and at the Elvis Is Alive 5K in early August. They carried business cards and buttons for new recruits. None of them wanted to ring doorbells or call voters, but they found this form of retail politics reasonably comfortable.
"I can only recall one incident where we ended up in a heated exchange," Bartlett said. "It was with a woman in a mink coat and green eyeliner, near the Field Museum. She said, 'You shouldn't have the right to wear those T-shirts. You need to support your president. If you vote for Kerry you're voting for communism.' I finally said, 'I respect your opinion.' She said, 'I don't respect yours.'"
At the Chris Zorich 5K in July, two kids near the finish line shouted "Four more years!" whenever they spotted a Run Against Bush T-shirt, but the AIDS Run/Walk Chicago didn't attract many conservatives. Run Against Bush members handed out more than 100 buttons.
They gave five to a group of men wearing their own anti-Bush T-shirts. The fronts said "Run Toto Run!"; the backs "No Bush for Us in 2005."
The men were part of a cheerleading squad that greets marathoners in Boys Town every October. The shirts were a double entendre--"a double double entendre," one guy explained. "No Bush for U.S. in 2005."
"We're breathing against Bush," another declared.
I misheard this as "breeding against Bush" and asked him to clarify.
"I would go so far as to breed against that man to get new voters," he said.
Back in the Run Against Bush circle, Jason Kotynski was looking pleased with himself. Kotynski, who's 24, joined the group this spring after spotting Bartlett and her friends out on the lakefront path. He'd voted for Bush in 2000 as a student at Indiana University, but turned against him over the war. Now he was Chicago's fastest runner against Bush. On Saturday he finished the race in 19 minutes and 45 seconds, a personal best, good for seventh place--and especially impressive considering he wore yellow surfing jams.
"My family is very, very pro-Bush, and they criticize me for running against something," Kotynski said. "I had a Dittohead T-shirt when I was 12. I was homeschooled, and I was told to fear going to college because I'd get brainwashed. I guess I did."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.