Bush criticizes Web site as malicious
By Wayne Slater / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN - Saying "there ought to be limits to freedom," Gov. George W. Bush has filed a legal complaint against the owners of a Web site that lampoons his White House bid.
The designer of the unofficial Bush site described it on Friday as a parody and said the governor is trying to limit what is written about him on the Internet.
But Mr. Bush, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, had harsh words Friday for the site (gwbush.com), which offers mock interviews and policy initiatives on drugs and crime.
"There's a lot of garbage in politics, and, obviously, this is a garbage man," said Mr. Bush.
Attorneys for the Bush presidential exploratory committee have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission seeking to have the owners post a disclaimer identifying who built the site and who is paying for it.
"It [the site] is filled with libelous and untrue statements whose aim is to damage Governor Bush," the campaign said in its letter to the FEC. "The headline of the site is, 'Just Say No to Former Cocaine User for President.' This site's innuendoes and false statements attack the governor's positions on tough standards for convicted drug dealers."
Karen Hughes, a Bush campaign spokeswoman, said the site so closely resembles the official Bush campaign site (www.georgewbush.com) that people could be confused. Ms. Hughes said the unofficial site urges people to vote against Mr. Bush, making it subject to federal disclosure requirements.
Sites that are strongly critical of candidates but do not urge voters to take action are exempt from federal rules.
Frank Guerrero, a spokesman for the designer, said the site is meant to poke fun at Mr. Bush by comparing what he calls his "youthful indiscretions" with his tough-on-crime policies as an adult.
He said the site does not advocate the defeat of any candidate and is such a clear parody that no one would confuse it for the real Bush campaign Web page.
"We're not affiliated with any other campaign," said Mr. Guerrero of the site's designer, Rtmark, a loose-knit group of corporate critics. "In fact, we see ourselves as completely nonpartisan."
The FEC confirmed Friday that it had received a complaint but declined to discuss the case, citing agency rules.
Ron Harris, an FEC spokesman, said the commission has not dealt with many Internet-related complaints and the current case could break new legal ground on how the Web is governed under campaign laws.
The unofficial Bush site has a photo of Mr. Bush and a banner that reads, "Presidential Exploratory Committee."
It includes a mock initiative dubbed "Amnesty 2021," which suggests Mr. Bush would pardon prisoners convicted of drug crimes if they have "grown up."
As a potential presidential candidate, Mr. Bush has declined "to catalogue my youthful indiscretions," saying that he has learned from his mistakes.
The site also pokes fun at Mr. Bush's characterization of himself as a "compassionate conservative."
"G.W. Bush has indeed been forgiven again and again by others. First there was his rambunctious youth," the site says.
"Then, as an unsuccessful Texas businessman, he was bailed out with millions of dollars from friends of his vice president father. As president, G.W. Bush wants to create an America in which everyone gets as much forgiveness and as many chances to grow up as he had."
The Bush campaign filed an initial complaint about the look-alike Bush site in April. Mr. Guerrero said changes were made so it would look less like the official site, but Bush campaign lawyers filed a second complaint with the FEC this month demanding a disclaimer and disclosure of funding sources.
"We appreciate humor. We appreciate parody. George Bush is known for his sense of humor," said Ms. Hughes. "But there's a difference between expressing opinion, poking fun and breaking the law."
Mr. Guerrero estimated about $70 had been spent to construct the site. He said the money came from Zack Exley, a Massachusetts computer consultant who initially registered and maintains the gwbush.com site.
Bush campaign political consultant Karl Rove has purchased at least 60 domain names that include the Bush name in an apparent attempt to curtail other anti-Bush site-makers.
"We've put out a request for domain names for [Vice President Al] Gore as well," said Mr. Guerrero. "We're trying to be bipartisan."
Staff writer Andy Dworkin in Dallas contributed to this story.