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Adams is 35, boyish, clean-cut and white. He's a Web designer by trade, engaged to be married next year. He wears unobtrusive but stylish Giorgio Armani lens frames and khaki pants and a neat blue button-down shirt tucked in. He betrays not a whiff of the traditional cartoon liberal. It's not until he talks that you learn what side he thinks he's on: He'll cop to being left of center, given the climate, but in his heart of hearts, he's right down the middle of the road. He didn't vote for Bush or Gore; he considers both bought and paid for. He didn't vote for Nader either. Too liberal. He wished he could have checked a box marked "none of the above." (He did vote in congressional elections.)
His dad's an English professor and his mom worked for a local water authority, and he graduated from Clear Lake High School in 1984, in an era when the Reagan administration -- alongside less salutary accomplishments -- was busily politicizing high school kids against a Republican agenda that hit all the wrong notes. He was always politically aware, but he never did anything that might be called activist. He drives a nice BMW and says "my politics aren't really defined by my income" and reads Investor's Business Daily, the trademarked motto of which is "Choose Success."
"I just think we need to come back closer to center than Bush is taking us," Adams says. He figures the election provided neither candidate with anything resembling a mandate, and yet he's seeing aggressive conservative policy effected. He doesn't need his tax rebate, and he doesn't particularly want it. It feels a little like blood money.
He had an idea -- give the money to the left -- about the time others had the same idea, but he was already a skilled Web designer, so he's the one who went ahead and did it. He floated the Web site TaxRebatePledge.org. Investing about $500, mostly on an ISP and some press releases, Adams has worked about 80 hours on the site since the June 5 launch.
That same day, Salon.com mentioned the site and reported that four "concerned" Americans had so far sent Adams pledges of $1,300 to help nonprofits targeted by the Bush administration. Two days later the pledge total was $35,000. By the time syndicated Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman called the Bush rebate "hush money" and recommended Adams's Web site, more than $100,000 had been pledged.
Adams sent a press release to Investor's Daily News, which, incredibly, noticed. On June 18, beneath sarcastic conservative editorials on Bush's triumphant "snookering the sophisticates" tour of Europe and one titled "Protesters: Who are those guys?" Tony Adams's Web site was pilloried as "proof that no one ever goes broke making ludicrous appeals to unhinged Americans " National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, in a rambling column called "Rebates for Morons," dismissed Adams's site (while writing an entire column about it) as stupid. Goldberg mocked that while he was going to spend his own rebate on "beef jerky, dog toys, and whatever else suits my fancy others may want to donate it to some cause or organization that does good as they see it -- the Catholic Church, the United Way, Citizens United to Protect Basset-Hound Habitat whatever."
For all the angry reaction, all Adams really did was float an idea: If you can do without your tax refund -- and, obviously, if you're interested in providing something of a left-wise counterweight to the dominant right-tilt of contemporary issue-politics -- why not consider pledging that money to some organization designed to further your agenda? If we're going to vote with dollars, let's vote with dollars.
TaxRebate Pledge.org includes a list of dozens of left-ish and less-than- radical groups, from Planned Parenthood to the Sierra Club to Oprah's Angel Network. You can choose to pledge up to the maximum rebate of $600 for couples. Adams adds it to the tally only after an e-mail confirmation of the pledge. There's no need to even specify where the donation goes. At press time the total was $217,000 from 651 pledges.
No money goes through the Web site. It's an on-line promise ring, flimsier than an oath at closing time. Adams will e-mail reminders to those signed on, but still, every single one could fail to follow through, and Adams would never even know.
It's, literally, nothing more than an idea.
And yet Investor's Business Daily felt compelled to offer harrumphing reassurances that "Most Americans don't typically turn against leaders who show them respect and consideration. Bush's tax rebate isn't likely to put too many in the mood to give cash to his enemies."
"Hilarious," Adams says.
The whole idea sounds pretty hysterical to Gary Polland, chairman of Harris County's Republican Party. He laughs, anyway.