Ice Cream Mogul Aims To Give Bush His Just Desserts

By Max Gross

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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Ben Cohen is determined to send George W. Bush on the Rocky Road back to Texas.

The co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is no stranger to political activism. His company, which he founded along with his boyhood pal Jerry Greenfield, has a long history of raising money for environmental and social justice causes.

“Growing up in Long Island and going into New York City, I remember driving through Harlem and being perplexed: Life was really tough on one side of the line, and really easy and ritzy on the other side,” Cohen said. “And the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War certainly had an effect on me. The 1960s and hippies were about peace and love — that had an effect on me, too.”

But as politically involved as he has been in the past, Cohen has recently found himself in a veritable blizzard of activity against the president. Last year he founded TrueMajorityACTION.org, a non-profit organization that promotes political education, and he developed its Web site, www.pantsonfire.net, (where one can purchase a doll of Bush in a cowboy hat with his pants aflame). He has also recruited business executives for his organization, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which consists of business moguls who lobby the government for changes in federal budget priorities. Most recently, he’s co-authored, “50 Ways You Can Show George the Door in 2004” (Westview Press), a new handbook for anti-Bush activism.

“We’ve talked, talked, talked and talked for four years about how much of a disaster George W. Bush has been,” wrote Cohen and his co-author, Jason Salzman, in the introduction to “50 Ways.” “Now it’s time to do everything we can to vote him out in November.”

“50 Ways” is rife with suggestions for the anti-Bush activist, from knocking on doors to registering voters in swing states. It includes everything from anti-Bush haikus (“I say it’s faulty/George Bush’s intelligence/Double entendre”) to songs like, “Ain’t No Surplus Cause It’s Gone,” a parody of Bill Wither’s 1971 hit “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

The book offers grass-roots lobbying tactics like going door-to-door in the rain (“People are impressed — and inspired — if you are out in the cold or dripping wet”), calling talk radio programs posing as a Republican (“We all know that the best way to convince someone of something is to claim that you are one of them…. You might say something like you’re so upset about Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility that you’ve decided to vote against him”) and a bunch of fund-raising ideas, including “Junk Bush” yard sales and “A New Prez Would Be So Sweet” bake sales.

And if anyone knows about sweet stuff, it’s Cohen and Greenfield. The two got to know each other growing up in Merrick, Long Island. “Jerry and I met in junior high school gym class. We were the two slowest, fattest kids in class,” Cohen said. Years later, they decided to go into business together — more out of desperation than inspiration.

“I was working as a potter, but nobody would buy my pottery. Jerry wanted to be a doctor, but he couldn’t get in to medical school,” Cohen remembered. “So we said, ‘We’re not getting anywhere, we should start our own small business.’ But the only thing we were really interested in was eating.”

Neither Cohen nor Greenfield had made much ice cream before, but they decided to bring the fashionable foods of New York and other big cities to a rural college town. “The food trends [then] were bagels and homemade ice cream,” Cohen said. They were originally going to do bagels, but the machinery was too expensive, so they went for ice cream instead.

They spent a year tinkering with various formulas. The process of experimentation is, according to Cohen, “very exacting.”

“When we were trying out Cherry Garcia, we would try out 20 different kinds of cherries,” he said. “It’s hard to find a cherry that had snap to it…. At first we were going to have chocolate-covered cherries, but we couldn’t find the right ones…. So [after finding] the cherry, we went through different types of chocolate. It takes a lot of time — a whole lot.”

It was not an entirely new exercise. “That was the sort of thing that I used to do when I was in early elementary school — mix in a bunch of cookies and candies into ice cream,” Cohen said.

In 1978 they opened up the first Ben & Jerry’s in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt., which soon became so popular that people from all over Vermont were coming to Burlington to buy their unusual, chunky ice cream. Customers began writing in with their favorite ideas for ice cream that soon became worldwide phenomena. “Many of the best Ben & Jerry flavors — Chubby Hubby, Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia — came from [fans],” Cohen said.

In 1988, the company opened its first overseas scoop shop — in Israel, a fact that Cohen has been known to mention with evident pride.

When Ben & Jerry’s was taken over by the conglomerate Unilever in 2001, it was a $300 million business.

Almost immediately upon starting Ben & Jerry’s, Cohen and Greenfield became politically active.

“Early on, [scientists introduced an] artificial growth hormone for cows to jack up their milk output,” said Duane Peterson, chief of stuff for Ben & Jerry’s (yes, that’s the title on his business card). “Ben & Jerry’s always got their milk and cream…[from] a family farm owned co-op here in Vermont…. They cut a deal where Ben & Jerry’s would pay 5% more if the co-op would pledge that they would not use this chemical on their cows.”

Since the 2001 takeover, Cohen has been less involved in ice cream and more involved in politics. “Last time around, I voted for Nader,” Cohen said, “but seeing how bad this guy is and seeing how he’s making America more divided between more rich and poor, how he’s benefiting corporations at the expense of everything else… this is not the year to make some symbolic protest.”






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