Putting the Progressive in PR

"To most Americans," says the activist consultant, PR means " 'We'll say anything for money.' We're not like that. We have a point of view." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

David Fenton is back where he started: battling nuclear power.

He was the guy behind the five-night "No Nukes" mega-concert in New York in 1979. The person responsible for Meryl Streep's anti-pesticide campaign in 1989 and the promoter of Nelson Mandela's U.S. visit in 1990. Two years ago, he promoted Cindy Sheehan's Texas protest, and he's an on-going resource for MoveOn.org's anti-Iraq war campaign. But on a recent morning, he's talking about nuclear energy to a handful of his staffers in the Dupont Circle offices of Fenton Communications, the company he has built up over the years as he has become the public relations guru of the U.S. left -- or, as Fenton prefers -- the country's progressives.

"It looks like we're going to have to fight the nuclear energy fight all over again," Fenton says. It seems that some of his liberal friends are vocal supporters of nuclear power as a clean energy source, but "they just don't understand the various dangers of truckloads of nuclear waste traveling on expressways."

Fenton does. Slim, white-haired and dressed in a dark suit and blue shirt, the 55-year-old looks like Ralph Lauren but sounds like Ralph Nader.

He paints a ghastly scenario of a hazardous-waste spill in a densely populated urban area. "What are we going to do if that happens?" he asks. "Call on 200 state troopers to guard the area for the next 10,000 years?"

He is a man whose political passion was born in the age of sit-ins and freak-outs, be-ins and flower power. Abbie Hoffman was a mentor, Allen Ginsberg taught him how to meditate. He spent his youth as a photographer, literally with a lens on history.

Today, his concern speaks to this peculiar moment in the political continuum, when uber-issues such as nuclear power, the Iraq war, global warming and oil dependence transcend traditional liberal-conservative agendas. Fenton has matured -- like many Americans on the right and the left -- into someone concerned about more than partisan issues.

More and more, says longtime client and friend Arianna Huffington, Fenton "breaks through the right-left conventional wisdom. He's very interested in the alignment that is happening." She's talking about a melding of the right and the left over certain political issues.

"There's no division between his life and his work," Huffington says. "The work that he does is exactly what he is passionate about."

For the past three decades, Fenton has been passionate about certain convictions. He's the "Where's Waldo?" character of the political left. One day he was taking a picture of Hoffman, another day he was in a picture with Mandela. He's not the poster child of liberal causes; he's the designer, producer and distributor of the posters.

He masterminded the "Give the Swordfish a Break" campaign for SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the late 1990s. He persuaded 750 chefs to stop serving swordfish. He promoted Huffington's Detroit Project, which tried to connect the dots between gas-guzzling cars, a national thirst for oil and state-funded terrorism. On posters and in print ads, Fenton posed the question: "What Would Jesus Drive?"

He arranged the New York event at which Laurie David, wife of comedy writer Larry David, saw Al Gore's global-warming slide show for the first time. Laurie David went on to produce Gore's successful documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

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