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."
Over the years, Fenton has been linked to nearly every ultra-liberal cause and celeb in U.S. politics. Anti-Bush billionaire George Soros, for instance. When Fenton Communications a few months ago took on the advocacy of the Appeal for Redress, a petition to Congress from members of the military who oppose the war in Iraq, Sean Hannity of Fox News said, "Appealforredress.org is not Fenton's only client. The list reads like a who's who of left-wing advocacy groups; MoveOn.org, America Coming Together, Campaign for America's Future, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP Voter Fund are just a few of their other clients. So the sponsors of the group are left-wing antiwar protesters, and their public relations mouthpiece spends the rest of their time flacking for George Soros and company, and we're to believe this is a nonpartisan effort?"
In response, Fenton says that Soros is a friend. "The last time we worked for him was during the 2004 campaign, when he toured the country promoting his views on how Bush was responding to terrorism. He expressed his view, now widely shared, that the Iraq war was a blunder that is making terrorism worse," Fenton says.
Fenton's political activism dates to his high school days. Born in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., he is the son of an accountant and a garment district runway model. His parents split when he was 7. His mother remarried, and Fenton and his younger brother, Jonathan -- an osteopath in Burlington, Vt. -- moved to Manhattan and went to public schools.
When he was 13, David Fenton got a camera for his birthday. Three years later, he was taking photographs professionally. As a junior at the Bronx High School of Science, he received an assignment from Life magazine. He took the money, left school, rented an apartment and never looked back. It was that kind of free, unfettered, tie-dyed era -- all-night bull sessions in pot-smoky rooms behind beaded curtains. "But I didn't 'drop out,' " Fenton says. "I 'dropped in' to an organization that was a news service: Liberation News Service."
He calls it the Associated Press of the 1960s antiwar movement. "I started working on causes I believe in."
He took lots of shots of the radical fringe, including the Chicago Seven defendants, the Black Panthers and the bomb-detonating Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. He sold his photos to newspapers and magazines such as Time and Rolling Stone. Some are collected in a book, "Shots: An American Photographer's Journal, 1967-1972" published in 2005.
Hoffman suggested the title years ago. "I owe much of my knowledge of public relations to Abbie," Fenton writes, "and his wild and effective antics."
Fenton headed back to New York in 1976 and persuaded Jann Wenner to hire him as Rolling Stone magazine's flack.
When the fugitive Hoffman decided to turn himself in to authorities in 1980, he needed somebody to handle the media fallout. He called on David Fenton.
In 1982, Fenton opened Fenton Communications in a two-office suite on West 57th Street. His first clients included the Sierra Club, Mother Jones magazine and Rodale Press. Later that year, he opened a Washington branch.
Today, Fenton's left-leaning PR firm has three offices -- in New York, Washington and San Francisco -- 70 employees and more than 50 clients, and bills more than $6 million a year. He bristles at the description. " 'Left' is a pejorative term," he says. "People I hang with use the word 'progressive.' "
And, he says, "PR is also a pejorative title. It means to most Americans: 'We'll say anything for money.' We're not like that. We have a point of view."
In the PR pantheon, Fenton Communications is a mid-size company, not as vast as Fleishman-Hillard or Burson-Marsteller, which have offices all over the world and hundreds of employees, but larger than others, including the right-tilting Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, an Alexandria-based firm that represents conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association and Stophernow.com, an anti-Hillary Clinton Web site.
One major focus of Fenton's life is to promote opposition to the U.S. engagement in Iraq. He has tried to pull together various organizations that oppose the war; he has helped start other groups. Former Democratic congressman Tom Andrews of Maine runs Win Without War from Fenton's office.
At a news conference for the March to Stop the War in October 2002, Fenton met Eli Pariser of the then-fast-growing antiwar community MoveOn.org. "The last antiwar movement people had seen was 30 years ago," says Pariser, executive director of MoveOn. "It was very countercultural. David noticed that this time around, it was a different kind of movement -- much more mainstream. It looked like America." Fenton was "really working to demonstrate this wasn't a fringe movement," Pariser says.
"The thing that's special about him," Pariser adds , "is that in the consulting class, there are a lot of people who make a lot of money by preaching timidity and caution. Consultants don't generally tell their clients to take big risks. It's easier to take small steps. David doesn't have that instinct."
Fenton Communications has never done a political campaign. Fenton prefers to work on policy. Besides, he says, "campaigns are a burnout."
An Al Gore campaign might be an exception. For the past few years, Fenton has been editing Gore's rousing antiwar speeches. "He is the first person I have gotten to know personally who is a possible candidate, so that makes a difference," Fenton says. "But the country is in such perilous shape, if someone wanted me involved, I would probably do it."
Recently, Fenton has also been working with first lady Laura Bush on a campaign to fight malaria in Africa.
He appears hyper-relaxed. He eats mostly organic food. He runs. He doesn't smoke. He lives in Greenwich Village and is going through a divorce. His only vice at the moment appears to be a serious cellphone addiction. His ring tone sounds like an activated "Star Wars" light saber.
As more companies go green, Fenton's business expands. Increasingly he works with more corporate, for-profit groups. Stonyfield Farm yogurt company has asked him to launch an effort called ClimateCounts, which will enable consumers to use cellphone technology to purchase products from the most climate-friendly companies. He's talking with Honda about representing its efforts to make environmentally friendly cars.
On a recent spring evening, more than 100 friends and clients gather in the Sky Room of the Hotel Washington to eat finger food, listen to a subdued guitarist and celebrate Fenton's 25 years in business.
People for the American Way is represented here. So is the Environmental Working Group and the Death Penalty Information Center, which Fenton co-founded.
John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace, has known Fenton since 1992. Passacantando says Fenton "is part of this larger diaspora of players from the '60s who function at a high level."
Young activists today, Passacantando says, are energized when they work with oldsters like Fenton, "who bring a certain level of immediate talent when you are working with them directly. But more importantly they are part of the larger arc of history that we are all on."
Passacantando adds, "I don't always agree with David. He's such a noodge that whatever nice comfortable belief you have settled into, he can challenge it in an open, often acidic way."
For example, after saying hello and exchanging pleasantries with Passacantando at the Sky Room soiree, Fenton gets down to business. "We can beat nuclear power based on transportation," he says.
This time around, Fenton is not going to attack nuclear power advocates with music concerts at Madison Square Garden, but with warnings of nuclear-waste mismanagement.
"That's not how Greenpeace has been looking at the issue," Passacantando says, "but from now on we will."