A lawyer and a close friend of John McCain, Jordan Wright has been collecting the merchandising detritus of presidential campaigns for five decades. Those stickers, signs, and (most importantly) buttons that Oval Office aspirants produce to woo Americans might seem like mere ephemera, but the items often last longer than campaign promises. In his years of collecting, which started at the age of 10 in Manhattan, Wright has amassed more than a million pieces of campaign memorabilia: items from the first George W. to today’s less-heralded version. This summer Wright’s collection will be the main exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, and will be on display from June through Election Day. A few weeks ago, the Voice had a chance to talk with Wright, who is the author of the new book Campaigning for President: Memorabilia from the Nation’s Finest Private Collection. Click here for a gallery of images from the collection.
Village Voice::This is a really interesting book, and is an exhaustive collection. How did you get started in all this — it had to do with Bobby Kennedy, yes?
Jordan Wright: Yeah, in 1968 Bobby Kennedy was running for president and I was 10 years old. I come from a very apolitical family, and in ’68, the Vietnam War was raging, the civil rights movement was happening, the environmental movement was starting, and I could not get a conversation at home on these subjects. The straw that broke the camels back was that one day my dad came home with the evening Post, and said that “King’s been shot,” and I didn’t know we had a King. (But of course he was referring to Martin Luther King) So, one day coming home from school I got off at the wrong stop to stop at Bobby Kennedy’s headquarters next to Tony’s Pizzeria, and there they were talking about all things I was interested in, and as added bonus when I left, they gave me buttons. So I kept coming back. After a while, it occurred me that if Bobby Kennedy was giving out buttons, Hubert Humphrey was, Richard Nixon was, and I roamed around the city going from headquarters to headquarters picking up buttons.
VV: What I enjoy most about the book is seeing the transformations — how we’ve gone from woodcut broadsheets to this very party-line patriotic red-white-blue motif on everything. What do you think has changed the most about campaigning and campaign materials?
JW: The first thing to note is that things haven’t changed — the button, which is the standard bearer of all political material, was around with George Washington. There was a vendor that created a brass button, that said ‘Long Live the President’ as we would say: ‘Long live the Queen’ — it had the 13 states around the edge and Washington’s face in the center. Washington saw them and bought 11, and had the buttons from his coat replaced with them to wear for his swearing in. Buttons today look different but it’s the same concept. There’s been one change which is a mystery to me. In 1820s, with Andrew Jackson, they had backwards buttons, with the candidate’s name printed on the back. They had to be turned around (which is hard), to see that they supported Andrew Jackson, or whoever. It was strange — you had to get close to someone and ask “Can I touch your jacket?” to see their support.
Another thing is campaigns — people are so convinced campaigning has become so negative — there’s the comment from Ferrarro which is racist, stuff about the Clinton’s marriage, Giuliani and his son… but in first part of book, there is a picture of a one-foot China doll of McKinley with his suit that is made up of the American flag draped around him. And this China doll, when you turn upside down, you see this African American baby. [Note: McKinley was rumored to have fathered a child out of wedlock, and this was supposed to be a helpful reminder from his opponents of the rumors]
VV: That’s pretty much what happened to McCain in 2000 in South Carolina…
JW: Exactly, but we didn’t have anything concrete from that — here you have 3-D evidence. In all fairness the Republicans were not innocent. William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s opponent — he’s famous now for the “Cross of Gold” speech – but then he was famous for giving speeches went on too long, and you had coffins that say ‘this child — ’ or ‘This man was talked to death’ given out by the Republicans.
VV: I have another question about the history of campaigning. Who had the best or most iconic stuff — is there anything that sticks out in your mind? For me, it looked like Teddy Roosevelt had the most interesting items, with his glasses, the teeth, the bear…
JW: I think you’re right to pick out Teddy Roosevelt, he was an important figure for long time, and had a lot to play off of — his teeth that were a whistle; he also handed out paper sheets you could cut out and wear as a mask. Can you imagine a Hillary mask that she would give out at the convention?
Another thing sticks out for me — in 1972, my family was split for first time down middle between Nixon and McGovern. One night, we had a large family dinner, and my father went around the table and asked everyone who they would vote for if there were an adult, or if they were a kid, who they were supporting. I had an uncle Nat, who kept avoiding father, finding something else to do — and my father, to this day, it is unwise to avoid him, it’s just better to get it out quick soon, because avoiding him only makes him more prosecutorial. My dad finally says, “just say it already, no one here is going to judge you, we’re split down the middle,” and my Uncle Nat got up and said in strongest voice possible: “I plan to vote for Gus Hall and Angela Davis of the Communist Party. I’ve voted communist my entire life” Earlier in the book, you can see a button for Eugene Debs that has his prisoner number on it [note: Debs was the first and only candidate to ever run from a jail cell — he was imprisoned for organizing an now-legal railroad server’s union]. Uncle Nat gave me the button with the prisoner number on it, which perhaps explains why my uncle Nat had such a hard career — he apparently wore this button and others like it regularly, which you can imagine was quite unpopular at the time.
VV: I think your story that begins with Bobby Kennedy is really interesting, particularly this year with the comparisons Obama has been getting to Bobby, JFK, MLK… do you see any really good items or interesting stuff in this year’s election?
JW: Harper Collins has me on book tour – I’ve gotten to go to all the primary states and others too. Let me tell you about my three favorite items.
No. 1 In New Hampshire, I got to go to the Rudy Giuliani boutique. Now, ‘boutique’ is a strange word – ladies run out and go to boutique, its not what you typically see at a campaign headquarters. So I go to the ‘boutique,’ and I bought a onesie. Do you know what a onesie is? It’s for newborns — a cotton one piece says “Rudy ‘08” on it. That’s pretty strange. How early do we want our child in psychoanalysis?
No. 2 – I’m in Des Moines, and it turns out Hillary Clinton also has boutique there. Now, the thing that catches my eye is piggy bank – I think “Isn’t that great? When I was kid, I had a piggy bank, and it taught be to save money.” But it says Hillary ’08 on the side. Now, one thing everyone can agree about Clintons is that they are a money machine. And I think: “Is this another way of raising contributions?”
No. 3 –So, I’m on everyone’s list, people send me stuff all the time. When Bill Richardson dropped out of the race, he had already opened a political headquarters in Vegas, and I got sent a box with all sorts of stuff in it. The box had typical items — bumper stickers, buttons, signs — but my absolute favorite was a “Bill Richardson in ‘08” thong. How important is the stripper vote really?
I want to talk you about another myth that’s right now all over papers and TV — people talk as if money only now started play role in politics. In 1896, McKinley refused leave his front porch to campaign — if wanted to hear the President speak had to go to front porch of his house. Imagine that today — would anyone show up in Chappaqua? He had a good friend (and everyone should have a friend like this), named Mark Hanna, who was big in Ohio industry. He went around country raising money, eventually raising 3 million dollars. In 1896, this was a phenomenal sum. The deal was, if you gave money to Hannah and this fund, you never had to ask for an appointment to see the president. You could just go to the White House and say “Hey, I’m Duncan, I gave money to the fund, and I’m here to see the President.” In the book there’s an item — it shows a bicycle with McKinley and [running mate] Hobart on the wheels, but driving the bike is the money man himself — and I think that says it all.
VV: Now, I don’t know if this is just me, but I never really see anyone just around town wearing presidential memorabilia. Who actually uses this stuff?
JW: For most of our history, we were a pre-literate society. Candidates had to come up with things that caught peoples’ eyes that were creative and made people want to vote. In 1892 Cleveland was running against Harrison — and he gave out mini mugs, about a quarter inch high. Cleveland gave whiskey parties, people got drunk, and after you’d put this whiskey mug in your pocket and people would say “I’ll vote for Cleveland, he got me drunk.” This is hardly issue-focused, but it did the job.
Now, Jimmy Carter, when he got in financial trouble, cut expenses by cutting buttons from his campaign materials, and the number of volunteers dropped off precipitously. A lot of buttons are made as mementos. People will say “Obama’s campaign is historic, I want a memento.” Same with Clinton. “I think McCain’s a war hero, I want something with his picture on it.”
There’s an interesting picture on the front of the book. The 1890’s had a button with billowing smoke from a factory — this was supposed to indicate prosperity. Can you imagine any candidate doing this today? We have completely changed our minds about what is acceptable.
VV: Tell me more about the museum you are establishing.
JW: On June 24th, there’s going to be an exhibition of 700 items at City Museum of New York. It should be very exciting — it’s a lot of stuff in the book, but it will also highlight the special role New York has played in presidential politics. Here’s one story that comes to mind. I was writing about Al Smith last night because of all the firsts this campaign, and he was the first Catholic to run for president. In response Hoover put out “Real Christian for President” type buttons — as if Catholics are not Christians. There was a rumor that when Smith was Governor [of New York], he used to go to the Holland Tunnel, supposedly going straight to the Vatican, and get his instruction from the Pope. Anyone in New York knows the Holland Tunnel does not go anywhere as interesting as Rome — so clearly only people not in New York would believe this.
I’ve given my collection to the Museum of Democracy. I’ve given over 1.25 million items, and the mayor is helping to find a spot, and we’ve got a few in mind. I want children and adults to see the long history of democracy, to see what it took to get people voting. With this election, it’s neat to see lot of people involved, but up to this year the trend was the opposite, with fewer and fewer involved in voting. I think if people could see the materials, even the negative campaigning, and the creativity that went into getting people involved in democracy, it would be fantastic. Until then, I’m doing other exhibitions around the country — we still haven’t found the perfect spot for a permanent museum.
All this occurred in about 2 years and 2 months. I’ve been collecting for a really long time, but I’ve never thought anyone found it interesting because the only people that saw it were my friends. I happen know John McCain quite well, and one day while having breakfast with him, he just asked “What’s going on with collection?” He insisted: “You have to do museum, and have to do a book.” This all came around real quickly, and it’s really a dream come true. It really is a surprise to me, this was kinda a big secret I had for the longest time, and now they’ve sent me around to all these interesting places. I’m amazed all these people are coming out to see the traveling museum and that people like the book. I was just dead wrong — people find this interesting.