The Magazine

Kitsch in Cabinets

Behind every successful politician stands a collector.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Campaigning for President

New York and the American Election

Museum of the City of New York

An opportunity to listen to Robert Kennedy Jr. promoting his new book blaming Republicans for just about everything was not my notion of a fun time. But an old friend needed someone to accompany her to the event, which might, she said doubtfully, "do you some good." More realistically, she also threw in the enticements of free food, free drink, and an interesting crowd; besides, she added, "You'll get on well with our hosts, particularly Jordan. The two of you have a lot in common. A lot."

As usual, Mimi was mostly right. Nice food, pleasant people, plenty to drink. The younger RFK proved unsurprising in his opinions and astonishing in his resemblance to his father; but it was the other political figures present who transformed the evening into something close to magic.

Bobby senior was there, and to pick out just a few more, so were Jack, Lyndon, Barry, and Ron, along with various Roosevelts, Honest Abe, Tricky Dick, and the Georges, Bush, Bush, Washington, Wallace, and McGovern, in plastic, celluloid, paper, silk, tin, linen, pottery--you name it, all crowded into one New York City apartment, prize specimens drawn from what is, almost certainly, the most spectacular private collection of political (and, in particular, American electoral) ephemera ever assembled. A portion of it can now be seen at Campaigning for President: New York and the American Election, the hypnotic, dazzling, don't-miss exhibition of pointillist political history now showing at the Museum of the City of New York.

If you've ever been gripped by an unexpected desire to see a Grover Cleveland chamber pot (a little counter-intuitively, this was a thank-you gift to some of his more generous supporters), a Max Headroom-cool Barry Goldwater cardboard mask from the 1964 Republican convention, or a Ulysses S. Grant train set, this is the show for you. If you want an idea of the spectacle, the carnival and the exuberant, the unruly vigor of America's constantly evolving democracy, Campaigning for President is for you, too. And if you're the type of person who likes reading THE WEEKLY STANDARD, just go and see it without any further delay (although, like another spectacle I could mention, the exhibition actually runs until November).

A good number of the items on display are rough, tough--vicious, even--but taken as a whole, this is, you'll discover, what we-the-people means. These buttons, pamphlets, pins, ribbons, canes, hats, brooches, posters, badges, lanterns, combs ("comb Nixon out of your hair"), trinkets, doodads, and toys are the relics, sometimes almost the last relics, of past debates, crusades, contests, and parades, most forgotten, a few not, but all of them evocative evidence of a nation where more and more were pushing, shoving, and shouting to make themselves heard and, sometimes, succeeding.

But splendid though this selection is, it's only part of a hoard one-and-a-quarter million strong, a collection that is now bereft of the man who put it together. For just weeks before the show opened, Jordan M. Wright died suddenly, aged only 50. He leaves behind him a family, friends--and a presidential campaign that will now have to go uncurated.

The opening of this exhibition would have been a source of immense pride to him, but tragically transformed into a monument to one of America's great collectors, it falls somewhat short. What's missing is a clear picture of Jordan Wright himself. There's a hint contained within a quotation on a display that hangs near the entrance, explaining that "it all started with a button" from RFK's 1968 presidential campaign, but for more, you'll need to turn to Campaigning for President: Memorabilia from the Nation's Finest Private Collection (HarperCollins, 292 pp., $35).

It's there that a fuller picture begins to emerge:

When I was ten .  .  . I would stop off at the Robert F. Kennedy for President headquarters. It was the first place I had ever visited where people were talking about the important issues of the day. .  .  . As an added bonus, every week there were new buttons that you could have for free. I never missed a week.    It did not take me long to figure out that if they were giving away free buttons at the Kennedy headquarters, then they probably were at McCarthy's, Humphrey's and Nixon's .  .  . too. There were .  .  . also posters, bumper stickers, and campaign brochures. I collected everything I could get my hands on.