A Carefully Stacked Deck
Ryan Deussing ’96 (left) and Zach
Levy ’96, creators of the Bush Cards.
PHOTO: LAURA BUTCHY
Do you know who in the Bush administration is an ex-con? Or who
never graduated from college? Can you guess the cabinet member who
has an oil tanker named after him? Or do you know whose nickname
Media entrepreneurs Zach Levy ’96, Ryan
Deussing ’96 and Ben Dailey have set out to educate
the country on such matters with their Bush Cards. Each deck of
casino-quality playing cards features 52 Bush administration officials,
ranging from names people know, including George W. Bush (the Ace
of Spades) and Condoleezza Rice (Queen of Hearts), to names people
may be less familiar with, including John Negroponte (Ambassador
to Iraq, Three of Diamonds) and Spencer Abraham (Secretary of Energy,
Seven of Spades). Each card has a picture followed by a descriptive
paragraph or a quote either from or about the subject — words
that tend to cast the subject in a less than flattering light.
Calling himself apolitical in his College days, Levy’s inspiration
for Bush Cards came when his girlfriend gave him a set of the Iraqi
Most Wanted cards designed by the Department of Defense. “I
was upset not just that we were going to war in Iraq but how we
did it,” Levy says. “I got the Iraq cards and thought
that if I laughed, other people would laugh, too.” So he approached
Deussing, whom he met while DJing for WKCR, and Dailey, a childhood
friend, about developing the Bush Cards with him.
When the cards debuted at local bookstores in July 2003, the initial
order of about 3,000 decks sold out in a few days. Since they couldn’t
find a distributor willing to take on the project, Levy expanded
the business by researching other cities to find stores on his own.
With coverage in The New York Times, CNN, Newsweek,
A.P. and the New Yorker, the business has thrived.
“I’ve been particularly thrilled with the way Bush
Cards have managed to penetrate the thick, insular layer of political
disinterest that coats so much of our culture,” Deussing says.
“People get interested because the cards are funny, and I
think he who laughs the loudest will win in 2004.”
After studying English and history at the College, Deussing went
on to work with 60 Minutes and Dateline and on
a variety of documentaries. Now he is developing his own website.
A freelance filmmaker and native Manhattanite, Levy was an urban
studies major and worked in documentary film as a cameraperson and
as a producer of short films for nonprofits. Now, Bush Cards is
a full-time job for him. “I was working on a film of my own
about a professional strongman when the cards struck. I hope to
get back to it after November 2.”
In May, an updated deck of cards was released with eight new “characters”
and a new box. The cards can be purchased in about 1,000 stores
nationwide, including bookstores in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle,
Austin, Pittsburgh and the Carolinas. Cards also are available online
as well as in Portland supermarkets and Marc Jacobs Home Furnishings
in Manhattan. Cards have been shipped to 30 foreign countries, including
1,200 decks to Germany in one day following an article in Der
Spiegel. As of August, more than 100,000 decks of Bush Cards
had been sold.
In Morningside Heights, “they sell like hotcakes,”
says Francis Mrema, assistant manager of Kim’s Video. “Generally,
from week to week, we’ll sell anywhere from 20–40 decks
Founded with an initial investment of $10,000 on Levy’s credit
card, the project paid for itself in two weeks. Orders were originally
filled from Levy’s home office. “At one point, there
were 10,000 pounds of cards in the living room of my apartment,”
he says. “It was making me nervous, so now we process orders
using a shipping company on Long Island.”
Levy contends that the cards have wide appeal. “They don’t
just speak to people who dislike Bush or the war,” he says.
“They are funny, and people pick them up to learn more. We
get a little bit of hate mail, but not much.”
Do the creators have a favorite card? “I like all of them,”
Levy says. “It’s like a dysfunctional family,”
though he adds that he is particularly proud of finding important
unknowns before they make the news, such as Thomas Scully. “I
think we did a good job with who we picked and what we picked.”
“My favorite Bush Card is probably Jeb Bush (Six of Clubs),”
says Deussing. “It sums things up nicely.” The card
has a one-sentence quote: “Jeb has assured me we have Florida.”
— George W. Bush.
Levy anticipates that sales will be strong through the election
campaign. “We’ll know we’ve done well,”
he says, “if we’re out of business in November.”