Ice cream guru wants feds to trim fat

Activism: Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's fame urges the government to cut back on military spending and focus on education and health care.

September 01, 1999|By Georgia N. Alexakis | Georgia N. Alexakis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Cutting down or scaling back are not words usually associated with Ben Cohen.

Cohen, a co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Homemade Inc. -- the Vermont-based company that indulges America's appetite for ice cream with flavors like Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey -- long ago swore off the minimalist approach. Since he and partner Jerry Greenfield started selling ice cream out of a renovated gas station in 1978, they have been adding more chocolate, more nuts, more fudge and more caramel to their calorie-laden treats.

But in his latest venture, the 48-year-old Cohen is preaching moderation, urging the government to do what he rarely asks of his customers: Trim the fat.

It's part of an ambitious three-year effort to make the nation's spending priorities a pivotal issue in the 2000 elections. Funded by Business Leaders with Sensible Priorities -- a group Cohen helped found in 1996 -- the campaign advocates reducing the military's budget by 15 percent (about $40 billion a year) and investing the savings in education and children's health care.

The logic behind their proposal, Cohen says, is straightforward: With the longtime threat of the Soviet Union now a receding memory, defense spending should not be at Cold War levels.

Reaching for an irresistible analogy, Cohen offers this: "It's like Ben and Jerry's is the U.S., and Haagen-Dazs is the Soviet Union. If both companies are spending $10 million a year on advertising and then Haagen-Dazs went out of business, it would be crazy for us to keep spending the same amount to promote our product."

Granted, the ice-cream analogy doesn't quite take into account the myriad factors that shape national security policy.

But Cohen says he has the business and military expertise behind him to back up his proposal.

Business Leaders with Sensible Priorities rose to public attention in 1996, when 30 CEOs and chairmen -- of Phillips Van Heusen, Bell Industries and Quad/Graphics, among others -- took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling on all the presidential candidates that year to specify their budget priorities. Now the group has ballooned to more than 500 members -- including Paul Newman and Ted Turner.

They have been joined by nearly a dozen retired admirals and generals, chief among them Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan who has published a report outlining how the Pentagon can reduce spending and still maintain an effective fighting force. The organization clearly hopes that having allies with such estimable credentials can bolster its credibility and influence.

"It's not exactly your ponytail brigade crowd," says Peggy Huppert, a self-described soccer mom from Des Moines who is managing the group's campaign in Iowa. "People stop and notice when they hear retired military leaders and conservative businessmen saying that this is something we have to do."

Cohen has very deliberately taken his pitch outside the Beltway and straight to the American public, using offbeat mass-marketing techniques to try to hammer home his message.

When he appeared on ABC's "The View" in February to talk about the group, Cohen donned a nightshirt emblazoned with a federal budget pie diagram.

In Washington earlier this year, Cohen and supporters constructed an 11-foot-wide ice cream pie at the Capitol to demonstrate that the Pentagon receives more than half of all discretionary spending.

Ben -- who has left the ice cream business in Jerry's hands for the time being -- now spends 12 to 16 hours a day making speeches, planning ad campaigns and distributing lapel pins adorned with Congress' current budget allocation.

In Iowa, where the campaign has chosen to direct its efforts up until the Feb. 7 presidential caucuses, a ragtag bus covered in dollar bills has been crisscrossing the state since May, using 30-foot-tall inflatable "budget pies" to help audiences learn how the federal budget is now sliced. Those in the crowd can try their hands at re-allocating money as they see fit.

"U Slice the Pie," as the campaign-on-wheels has been dubbed, spent 11 days at the Iowa state fair and, according to Huppert, became something of a sideshow at the media-deluged straw poll.

"We're trying to take this dry and serious issue and bring it out of the realm of wonks and experts and big, thick policy papers," Cohen says. "The average person on the street is intimidated. They think, `Who am I to question the Pentagon?' But you don't need a tremendous amount of technical expertise. You just need some common sense."

When all else fails, Cohen has turned to rap music to help get his message across. Jaws dropped last month at the National Press Club when Cohen -- balding, bearded and bespectacled -- interrupted his otherwise just-the-facts speech with a "Move Our Money" campaign song.

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