Photo by James BunoanBryan Barton wasn't the first person to get kicked out of the Minuteman Project's citizen-border-patrol corps, but he was the first to get kicked out because of a T-shirt—instead of for waving around an M-16. On April 6, Barton stopped a Mexican national named Jose Sepulveda about ten miles into Arizona and gave him water, Wheaties and—here's where we pass the quit-while-you're-ahead line—a T-shirt that said "BRYAN BARTON CAUGHT ME CROSSING THE BORDER AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT."
And then he took some pictures of Jose uncomfortably holding the shirt, and some of himself (grinning) and Jose (not so grinning) cheek-to-cheek like summer-camp buddies, and then the Cochise County Sheriff's Department got involved, and Bryan's photos went all the way up to Drudge and CNN. Then people started mentioning phrases like "international incident" and "Abu Ghraib," and this giggly 25-year-old San Diego resident left the Minutemen two days ahead of schedule and came home to 15 not-so-flattering minutes of fame.
Which is fine with him—because besides his congressional campaign as a young Republican, he's got a reality show to pitch, and thanks to one dehydrated illegal alien and some savvy timing, the Bryan Barton name is hotter than ever. But if anyone digs up the real story on what makes Barton run, it could get hotter still.
"To all the people who say I did this for my own self-gain," says Bryan over lunch at a nice Mexican restaurant (where his loud jokes about rounding up illegals in the desert force us to leave a really generous tip), "I saved Jose's life. The primary thing is that I gave him food and water, and nobody seems to care. Anybody who wants to criticize me, I say: When's the last time you saved a life?"
And that much is true—Jose is totally still alive. No word on whether he got to keep the T-shirt when the Border Patrol showed up. And Jose's later charges that Bryan had illegally detained him—which, admittedly, are a little unrealistic when you meet skinny, spazzy Bryan, who doesn't seem like he could detain much beyond a stiff breeze—were dropped, though Cochise County law enforcement remains pissed.
"[Barton] acted like a clown," Sheriff Larry Dever told a local newspaper. "He is clearly trying to make a name for himself for political purposes, and I'm not interested in helping him."
"It wasn't funny," added a Border Patrol spokesperson. And: "Allowing such activity to go unpunished sends a message to the entire country that individuals are free to take the law into their own hands," said the ACLU of Arizona. "In a nation of laws, this is intolerable."
But Bryan Barton has made a career out of being intolerable, even if he has yet to evolve that into "electable." His congressional-campaign-slash-reality-show-slash-illegal-alien-photo-op is just the latest in a string of intermittently successful publicity snares (leading one UCSD student blog to call him a "narcissistic megalomaniac").
His last legitimate office was homecoming prince at Sacramento's Bella Vista High School—he lost his bid for king—and his last political action before the Minuteman Project almost got him kicked out of school. In May 2004, he commandeered a public-input session of the university student council (with a borrowed goat named Carnival and a squad of Bartonites with water balloons backing him up) and declared himself dictator of UCSD. Ten seconds later, the elected council officials were soaked and Bryan was on his way to a meeting with the dean, which would postpone his official graduation (on a poli-sci major) until this summer. He still walked with the rest of his graduating class, however, beaming when students realized who he was and viciously booed him. So in some ways, he is extremely prepared for a career in Republican politics.
And he's also extremely prepared to get blown apart, with a history practically collapsing under potential scandal—in fact, he should consider himself lucky that the Associated Press stringers who made him famous didn't dig much deeper than what happened in the Arizona desert. Bryan was once editor of UCSD's infamous Koala, the South Park-damaged campus humor publication that the UC Students of Color Conference hailed as "hate-filled" and "very disturbing" ("I think it's popular among white guys," noted one UCSD lecturer. "Especially non-Jews.")
The Koala's media zenith may have been its "Jizzlam" issue, which reportedly won editorial staff actual physical beatings. So could, say, savvy Democratic operatives somehow make use of Barton's association with a publication, say, featuring a photo of Barton in a Hitler mustache a few pages away from an ad with a sexy schoolgirl captioned RAPE AWAY? "I was NOT the editor during 'Jizzlam'!" Bryan says, waving his arms. "And nothing in that paper was ever serious."
And there—at least for those who don't care about the concerns of the Jizzlamic-American community—is the most pressing question for Barton's future: Is this guy for real? He does have a platform—free speech (pro), illegal immigration (con, though he says if he catches anyone else crossing the border, they'll get a free T-shirt), and the privatization of Social Security (pro), an argument he plans to pitch to his generation in terms of extra beer money—but he's much more into talking about how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura pioneered electo-tainment. And, he says, "There's never been a reality show based on a political campaign—I have it copyrighted!"
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He's not a fraud (as some have claimed), he insists, but he can't even register for the primary until 2006. Until then, all he's got is the good Barton name. And eight hours of a videotape for a reality show pilot, featuring Jose Sepulveda. Who, Bryan admits, never signed a release authorizing his appearance. That might be a problem later, too. Or it might get him on TV for almost causing an international incident—again.
"I don't find attention," Bryan says. "Attention finds me. The original intent was to save some dude dying in the desert. He could have died if it wasn't for Bryan Barton."
And he smiles wide and sketches a quick exclamation point with his fork: "Double-you-double-you-double-you-vote-barton-dot-com!"
WATCH VIDEOS OF BRYAN AND JOSE, GET YOUR OWN BRYAN BARTON T-SHIRT OR CONTACT BRYAN ABOUT HIS REALITY SHOW AT WWW.VOTEBARTON.COM.