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.

And that's enough to signal to other collectors that we (yes, I am also one of those: postage stamps, Baltic and British, artwork of the First World War, old travel books, and, me too, political ephemera) are in the presence of one of our own.

There's the early start; there's the intellectual interest, overwhelming and intoxicating, in the subject matter; and then there is the growing, thrilling compulsion located somewhere between addiction and more cheerfully defined pleasures, a magpie craving that needs to be fed but can never be satisfied: "I never missed a week .  .  . I collected everything I could get my hands on." Naturally.

The spoor of the true collector can be detected throughout Wright's lovely, lovingly compiled, and magnificently quirky book. There are the excitedly recounted treasure hunts ("Following the crowd, I stumbled into a firemen's memorabilia show and sale"), the amazing coups ("How I acquired a pro-Lewis Cass, anti-Zachary Taylor mechanical metamorphic card is truly lucky"), and an enjoyably tricky, gleefully finicky set of rules and regulations ("the congressional collection is weaker because I refuse to collect items from men who died before they could serve in Congress--even if their widows replaced them").

Then there is the photographic evidence of the collector's characteristic anxiety about unwrapping, of taking apart what should always be kept together. An old New Hampshire ballot box is shown still locked, its voting papers left uncounted and undisturbed. An iron-on McGovern patch ("I bought it at the McGovern Boutique") has, like my "Turkey Dinner" George W. Bush, never been removed from its packet.

Not long after arriving at Jordan's place that evening, I was introduced to him as a fellow collector, as an owner of a Mrs. Thatcher teapot, no less. His response was a keen question about Michael Howard memorabilia (so far as I was aware the Tory leader had generated few knick-knacks) followed by a quick, delighted, and delightful introductory tour of his collection. Within minutes I was surrounded by statesmen and charlatans, by victors and vanquished, by posters, by effigies, by that made precious by time.

I had been shown an FDR vice-presidential button (from the 1920 campaign, as I'm sure you remember), Richard Nixon's monogrammed White House dressing gown, and an impressively tawdry souvenir of the Monica Lewinsky affair. I was, obviously, in the presence of a master.

There's a passage in Bruce
Chatwin's Utz, the wittiest and most perceptive novel I have ever read about a collector, in which Chatwin's hero, the acquisitive, eponymous Utz, reveals what some collectors undoubtedly feel about museums:

An object in a museum case .  .  . must suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in the zoo. In any museum the object dies--of suffocation and the public gaze--whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch. As a young child will reach out to handle the thing it names, so the passionate collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker. The collector's enemy is the museum curator. Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years, and their collections returned to circulation.

These are not sentiments that the public-spirited Jordan Wright would have endorsed. An endearingly enthusiastic evangelist for the democratic process, at the time of his death he was busy creating a permanent Museum of Democracy to house his collection. All the same, I suspect that he would have understood what Utz was talking about. The two or three times he showed me those items he kept in his Manhattan apartment (the rest of his trove was, he told me tantalizingly, "stored in a warehouse") he made them live as no one else could, weaving their backstories in with tales of their acquisition to form one unique whole.

Unique. Not perfect. It never could be that. The nature of Jordan's collection is that it was always a work in progress. That must have been part of the fun, the thrill of a chase that could never end, a pursuit that clearly intrigued him, entranced him, and, with its unavoidable (if you're the sort of collector who once tried to buy a costume off an anti-GOP protestor's back, it comes with the territory) moments of absurdity, hugely amused him. Jordan Wright was serious about his collection, but he was a man who knew absurdity when he saw it. And, I think, loved it.

And, oh yes, he managed to buy that costume. But you'd already guessed that.

Andrew Stuttaford is a writer in New York.