White House vs. whitehouse

Doesn't the vice president have better things to do than trample the First Amendment rights of a Web satirist? An interview with whitehouse.org's John Wooden.

Published March 6, 2003 8:11PM (EST)

John Wooden describes his company, Chickenhead Productions, which runs the parody Web site whitehouse.org, as "a sickening repository of tasteless and self-congratulatory garbage, produced by a detestable clique of New York City losers, who toil needlessly in abject poverty and well-deserved obscurity."

But Wooden, a 31-year-old Web designer and political satirist, has been underselling himself. Late last month, he received a letter from no less an institution than the Office of the Vice President of the United States. The note was not exactly fan mail -- signed by David Addington, Dick Cheney's official counsel, it requested that Wooden take down all of his online references to Cheney's wife, Lynne.

"It is important to avoid using her name and picture for the purposes of trade without her written consent," Addington wrote, citing several legal precedents that purportedly proved his case. "It is also important to avoid portraying her in a false light. Accordingly, I request that you delete the photographs of her and the fictitious biographical statement about her from the Web site."

The letter also suggested that Wooden was breaking federal law by displaying the presidential seal, and that his site's disclaimer that the content was satirical was not obvious enough. "Few people are likely to notice the disclaimer link on the Web page relating to Mrs. Cheney and even fewer are actually likely to click on the link and actually see your disclaimer, so the disclaimer is of little value in making visitors to the Web site aware of the fictitious nature of the Web page," the letter stated.

Most visitors, however, might find it hard to mistake whitehouse.org for anything but parody. The site's current headline is "Secretary Fleischer Delivers Forceful Rebuttal to Charges of Senselessly Dooming Innocent American GIs Purely for Craven Political Gain." (The White House's official site is at whitehouse.gov; whitehouse.com is a porn site.)

Wooden's take on Lynne Cheney, who is the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the author of several books, is clearly not meant to flatter: "The daughter of a ruggedly masculine sheriff and her demurely erudite husband, Lynne took an early and girlishly appropriate interest in those aspects of American art and culture which are so comfortably reminiscent of 18th century thought and tradition," whitehouse.org says of the vice president's wife.

"Today, Mrs. Dick Cheney is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a non-partisan think tank devoted to improving the plight of average Christian white Americans everywhere. In addition, she serves as director of the Readers Digest Association, where she has been a forceful advocate for the commercial distribution of 'Life in These United States' hardcover compilations."

In a phone interview from Brooklyn, Wooden told Salon that he was very surprised by the letter from the government, but that he wasn't doing anything to change his site.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

So what was your reaction to this letter?

I was pretty shocked. I was totally shocked, in fact, especially inasmuch as the letter contained various completely inaccurate assertions with regard to the use of the presidential seal -- which on the site is a parody seal. I think it would be fair game and utterly legal to use the real seal, but we didn't do that.

More importantly, the thrust of the letter seemed to be that Lynne Cheney is not enough of a public figure to merit parody. And that's completely false -- it's not as if Lynne Cheney is an anonymous, stay-at-home senator spouse. She's had a very active political career as a pundit and lecturer and author. After 9/11 she collaborated on a blacklist of American academics.

And the fact that it was sent from the Office of the Vice President shows that. There's a paradox in their claiming that she's not enough a of a public figure, but sending it from the vice president's office.

So what did you do?

We promptly published the letter, of course. We altered the photos -- we put silly little clown noses on the photos of Lynne Cheney. We wrote a satiric speech about the incident from Dick Cheney. And then I contacted the Civil Liberties Union.

Did you think they had standing -- did you think you might have to take anything down?

Absolutely not. If they genuinely believed they had a legal leg to stand on, the letter would have read much differently. As it stands now, if you read it carefully, it is just a request.

The ACLU contacted the vice president's office informing them that we're confident that there's nothing illegal about the content in question, and now we're awaiting a response. So in many ways it's somewhat puzzling that everyone is so interested in this. While it is chilling that the Office of the Vice President would send out this request, there's nothing to it really.

Do you really think so? He's the vice president and he's asking a parody Web site to take down content ...

No, it's significant. I meant from a legal standpoint, there's nothing to this. The Web site I believe is no different from having a bumper sticker on your car or a political cartoon in a newspaper. To have the Office of the Vice President formally contact the publisher of a political cartoon is shocking.

How long has your site been up?

It has been under current management since the summer of 2001. There's a core group of five writers, myself included, who work on it. The domain has a longer history of political parody -- it was active under different management during the Clinton-Gore White House, and they didn't seem to have any problems with it.

Before receiving this letter, did you have any reason to believe that people at the White House may have been reading your site?

Not really.

So they weren't your main audience?

No, no.

Does it surprise you that they were reading it?

No, it doesn't surprise me. As someone who produces Web content I know that I look at similar domains. It doesn't surprise me that whoever producing whitehouse.gov would be looking to see what others in their top level were doing.

And over the years a lot of people have -- a number of people had written to us saying they were "formally complaining" to the White House about this site.

Has that been the main response to your site? Are people usually upset?

Overall it's quite positive. We get fan mail from all over the world.

What about from Americans?

Yes ... of course, during the last 24 hours we've received a tremendous amount of hate mail, since it's been picked up by the likes of the Drudge Report and the New York Post.

What kind of hate mail?

Oh, you know -- death threats, accusations of homosexuality and communism, real all-American stuff.

And are you getting more visitors?

Well, it was already quite popular. On average we get about 30,000 people a day, almost a million a month, which is really good. And of course recently we've seen it go up quite a bit, but that's just temporary.

So do you make money from this site?

Not really, no. It's an expensive endeavor, keeping up the Web site. We sell T-shirts and stickers but all of that is going to server costs -- anything left over ends up in going for drinks for the writers. It's a volunteer effort.

Do you plan to do anything different now that you've been noticed by the White House?

No, it's business as usual for us. We've continued to publish new material.

Do you think they're going to press this issue legally?

I don't know. We're waiting to hear back, but it would really surprise me if they did. It seems like a very clear First Amendment issue.

And besides the legal issues here, you would assume that the vice president is busy with other things, right?

Right. You would think they'd have better things to do. Fixing our imploding economy, perhaps.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------