James Schulmeister ’08 was making his way back from a party around 2 a.m. October 10, when he found out he was running for president. At least, that’s what the flyers said — all 1,500 of them, along with 100 posters.
While other students may have been confused about who put the mysterious posters up, Schulmeister knew right away. During his senior year at Panahou High School in Honolulu, Schulmeister’s friends developed a tradition of playing pranks on him, one that apparently had continued into college. In an election year where “The Daily Show” is more popular among the youth demographic than CNN, and when commercials selling everything from Internet access to the latest Chucky movie have political themes, even practical jokes may be influenced by election season.
While his friends said that they primarily just wanted to play a joke on Schulmeister, the timing of the prank lent itself to a political spin. As his “campaign advisors,” his friends created a platform that included saying “yes” to the 9/11 Commission, container checks and a global economy, while saying “no” to unemployment, inflation and terrorists.
“It definitely was our way of satirizing the political process,” Will Jacobson, Schulmeister’s high school friend, said. “This is a very divisive election, and there’s so much to make fun of.”
Another friend, Patrick Sullivan, first conceived of the prank in early September. Originally, the group had planned to make 500 flyers advertising Schulmeister as a candidate for the presidency of the Yale College Council, but they eventually decided it would be funnier if Schulmeister were running for president of the United States. And so the friends converged on New Haven: Jacobson, Tommy Gill, Chris Lee from Williams College, and Sullivan from American University. With them were Amanda Zaitchik from Williams and Ben Dwertman from American, who did not know Schulmeister but had been won over by his friends’ enthusiasm.
They did not come empty-handed. Two weeks before the plan was to be carried out, Sullivan and Dwertman bought all the necessary supplies: 100 posters, 1,500 sheets of paper, seven bottles of rubber cement, four glue sticks, 40 pieces of chalk, one roll each of mounting foam and duct tape, two staplers, 5,000 staples and two sets of printer ink cartridges. All of this cost roughly $200, which Sullivan gladly paid.
He then recruited ten people who spent ten hours over two nights in an American University lounge putting the posters together. Each poster included a picture of Schulmeister and slogans such as, “James in office is a must! He will give us a surplus!” and “He’ll clean the ponds and lakes and trees! A brand new start at an economy!”
Meanwhile, Gill and Jacobson designed and printed the flyers at Williams. The flyers went into more detail on Schulmeister’s platform and offered specific campaign promises, including a pledge to “erase the budget deficit in 9.5 weeks, while raising the minimum wage to $13.69!”
Armed at last with their completed creations, the group set off for New Haven, where they were joined in their efforts by two old friends, Chris Schmicker ’08 and Lindsay Hong ’08.
On the night of the prank, Schmicker played the role of spy, keeping the group updated as he and Schulmeister moved from one location to the next. The rest of the gang plastered Science Hill with campaign materials and then moved to several of the residential colleges, concentrating especially on Calhoun, Schulmeister’s college. Along the way, they affixed their work to bulletin boards, lampposts, doors and gates.
Finally they came to Old Campus, where Sullivan estimates they used 80 percent of their materials. They affixed a poster to every tree and littered the walkways and doors with flyers. In Schulmeister’s entryway in Bingham, they placed a flyer every inch up the railing. Before they retired for the night, Sullivan and the gang added the finishing touches, chalking “James for Prez” at three different locations on Old Campus.
Schulmeister did not know that his friends were in New Haven until he looked closely at the signs on Old Campus that night. He immediately began shouting for his friends to reveal themselves, thinking they might be waiting for his reaction as they had with previous pranks. When no one responded, he called Sullivan on his cell phone, but Sullivan pretended to be asleep in his dorm at American. After surveying the scene for about a half hour, Schulmeister finally went to sleep.
The following afternoon, Schulmeister’s friends dressed up in suits and walked around Old Campus, clipboards in hand, asking students to sign a petition that would lower the age needed to be president to eighteen. They told everyone that, if they could get 50,000 signatures by October 15, Congress would hold a special meeting to discuss the issue. In the limited time they spent gathering signatures, over 40 Yale students signed the petition.
Schulmeister finally spotted the pranksters and charged over to meet them.
“He was very excited and amused, definitely not angry,” Sullivan said.
Schulmeister spent the next couple of days with his friends, catching up and sharing the sights of Yale. It was just like any normal visit, except for the posters and flyers sprinkled throughout campus.
The prank has earned Schulmeister attention from some unexpected sources. When he woke up on Sunday morning, he had an e-mail from Calhoun College Dean Stephen Lassonde.
“Dear James,” Lassonde wrote. “I’m writing, first to wish you luck in the upcoming elections, and second, to let you know that postering of doors and gates is not permissible. I had to remove your poster from Calhoun’s back gate.”
Schulmeister’s dean was not the only person who mistakenly believed that he put the posters up himself, either.
“I definitely got the feeling that people who didn’t know me were looking at me and just thinking, ‘That is a really weird kid,'” Schulmeister said. “It was like, ‘Who does this guy think he is?'”
Among those who knew the story, the reaction was mostly positive.
“He was talking on our FOOT trip about how his friends back in high school used to play pranks on him,” Michael Murray ’08 said. “But I can’t believe they came up here to do this. That’s impressive.”
Katie Johnson ’07, a Panahou High alum who hosted the pranksters in her common room for the weekend, noted that since most of the materials were posted on Old Campus, many upperclassmen did not see them at all. But that is their loss.
“All my friends who knew about it thought it was hilarious,” she said.
Some, however, expressed mixed feelings about the stunt. Justin Lo ’08, who graduated from Panahou High with Schulmeister and his friends, was impressed by the prank but felt that it was a waste of time and money.
“I mean, I guess it’s pretty awesome to have friends who can do that for you, but I thought it was a bit high-schoolish, kind of immature,” he said.
Even though Schulmeister’s friends have returned to their respective colleges, the prank seems to have taken on a life of its own.
David Chernicoff ’07, publisher of the Yale Record, has been posting more signs and flyers since James’ friends have left. The Record is endorsing Schulmeister’s presidential campaign, and listening to Chernicoff talk about it, you would think — erroneously — that he was seriously considering voting for him.
“[James is] a free thinker,” Chernicoff said. “It really made me think about how I wanted to use my vote and how I wanted to use my time.”