"People like my signs because they're intellectual," Madden says. "There's a message there, but there is also that bite. You know, that edge. There was this one guy campaigning throughout the entire election with a sign that said 'Bush is stupid.' What kind of sign is that? You're never going to get anybody's attention that way. They've got to have bite."
Madden hauls his collection of signs all over town, hanging them around his neck with wire clothes hangers so they cover his front and back like sandwich-board advertisements, but he prefers the more highly educated, liberal sections of the city. There he finds the people most likely to take offense at his messages, most likely to grasp their subtleties. Because it takes someone with a higher-caliber intellect to decipher lines like "Kerry Throws Like a Girl."
"Did you see him throw out that pitch at the Red Sox game?" Madden asks with his characteristic stunned disbelief. "Two-hopper to the plate, man. It was pathetic. And he wasn't even standing on the mound! Compare that to Bush. Every time you see him throw out a pitch, bingo! Straight down Broadway, man. Right down the middle."
He abruptly stops his diatribe and appears contemplative.
"I shouldn't even be talking to you," he says. "Westword is a pinko-fascist rag."
Born in Denver in 1942, Madden attended Regis High School before moving on to Regis University. Afterward, he enjoyed a long career as a clerk at the downtown post office before retiring twenty years ago. He lived the normal life of the retiree, reading everything he could his get his hands on and silently fuming at the rampant liberalism embodied in upstarts like Pat Schroeder, Katie Couric and Roy Romer. Then, nearly two years ago, a group of "Boulder feminists" came to Denver to protest what was then looking more and more like a war in Iraq, and Madden decided to take matters into his own hands. He painted his first sign, "Slick Willy Raped Juanita" -- since slightly edited -- and ambushed their protest in front of Denver's City and County Building.
"Some college kid jumped out the line and yelled, 'We're not all in love with Clinton, you know!'" Madden remembers, adopting a freakish, high-pitched falsetto as he imitates the protestor. "When a liberal says they're not in love with Clinton, guess what? They're in love with Clinton. It's just like somebody saying they're not about the money. Those types of people are always about the money. The biggest lie the liberals will tell you is that they're not liberals. They want to use the term 'progressive' or something like that. That's like Hitler calling himself a 'national socialist.' That's why I'm here. To not let the liberals get away with it, to make fun of what they're trying to do."
Aiding him in his mission is a long list of red-blooded Americans, such as the authors of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, whom Madden has elevated to near demigod status. After all, it was they, he explains, who provided the damning photo of a young John Kerry at the war museum in Hanoi, gazing fondly at a picture of communist leaders with burning love in his eyes. It was Unfit for Command that helped Madden to see how Kerry shot himself in the ass with a bag of rice and then had the gall to lobby for a purple heart. Ann Coulter would be on Madden's Friendster page as well: She helped him realize that Joseph McCarthy was not really such a bad guy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also makes the cut; in fact, one of Madden's election-season messages read "Bush '04, Condi '08."
The reactions that Madden gets from his signs are as varied and outlandish as the signs themselves. During a twenty-minute span that he spends standing on the corner of Colfax and Lincoln outside the Capitol Building, nearly everyone passing by has something to say. A J.-Crew-clad couple pulls up in a recently washed SUV and showers him with praise. "Where have you been?" they ask. "We've missed you! We love you!" It's hard to tell whether they enjoy Madden in that kitschy, neighborhood-nutball sort of way or if they genuinely appreciate his message. Either way, there's no denying the pleasure on their faces.
Two bearded painters with a ladder atop their truck drive by and laugh. A man in a Chevy Cavalier pulls up close to the curb and violently flips Madden off while the light is red. When it turns green, he spits at him and speeds away. Another man in a white sedan rolls down the window and yells "I love it!" before giving Madden two thumbs up and plunging deeper into downtown. A homeless man walks by, reads the Clinton sign and mutters, "That was two terms ago, you dumb fuck."
The worst response Madden has ever received happened one afternoon along Eighth Avenue and Colorado. A man about Madden's age parked his car, got out and walked over to the sign-flyer. The man proceeded to verbally berate Madden for nearly fifteen minutes, standing toe-to-toe with him, nearly bursting with rage. Madden asked the man to leave; he continued to yell. He walked around the block; the man followed. Madden began to fear that the man meant to do him physical harm. Finally, he came across a pay phone and started to dial the police. The man quickly fled.
"It was crazy," Madden says with conviction, as if he may just be an expert on the subject. "I don't do this to get into fights, and I'm not trying to raise money or anything. I do it because it's fun. I get good exercise in, and I get to bug the liberals. I love it!"
If Madden could impart one message to the citizens of this state, it would be to always vote Republican, as he did in the most recent election. "Democrats are dangerous," he says. "Look at Hillary Clinton. She's a communist, she's a murderer. She murdered Vince Foster. She murdered Ron Brown. These people can't be trusted to run the country."
He stops again and thinks for a moment, staring at the blinding reflection of the sun off the gold dome of the Capitol. His thick glasses capture the concentration in his eyes. The desert-ready strips of fabric hanging from the back of his hat flap wildly in the wind.
"It's not about me," he says with finality. "It's about saving this country from the Democrats, from the communists. It's about saving this country from people like your boss over there at Westword -- that communist Patty Calhoun."
John Madden, fighting the good fight.