The Magazine

Barack Jintao

From the Scrapbook.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Second, he was invariably fair in his treatment of everyone and everything he wrote about. Broder never hid his own center-left views; but he took conservatism and conservatives seriously, wrote or cowrote three good books about Republicans, dealt with people and issues respectfully, and studiously avoided the strident ad hominem tone of much contemporary political rhetoric. 

He was also, to use another well-worn phrase, a gentleman of the old school, kind and courteous to all who crossed his path. The Scrapbook will miss him.

Tomorrow’s ‘Treasures’ Today

The vigilant folks at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History are working hard to preserve what they take to be our nation’s heritage. And because preservation can be a tricky business (if you blink you could miss history-in-the-making), they are scavenging for items today that down the road might hold “historic significance.”

Thus the museum last week sent curator Barbara Clark Smith to Madison, Wisconsin, to collect materials to document the heated battle there over legislation to reform collective bargaining. More specifically, the curators wanted to make sure they will be in a position to memorialize the labor protests at the state capitol (even if these did turn out to be the Custer’s Last Stand of Wisconsin’s public employee unions). According to Valeska Hilbig of Smithsonian public affairs: “If we don’t collect these things now, they’re lost forever.” The horror!

So what “things” must be saved? The political history division of the museum, which Smith represents, regularly scouts for items that will document “how Americans participate in the political process”; collected artifacts will likely include protest signs and buttons. The Scrapbook hopes they remember to pick up the “Scott Walker = Adolf Hitler” sign, not to mention the one that featured the governor with the Führer’s mustache and the slogan “Exterminating Union Members.” These will make for interesting exhibits in a future display, showing how, at a time when the American right had a notorious civility problem, the left was abiding by Marquess of Queensberry rules.

The great unanswered question is which of the museum’s compelling artifacts—the original Michael Jackson hat? Disneyland’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant? Phyllis Diller’s cigarette holder?—will have to go into cold storage to free up display cases for the artifacts rescued from the tons of litter left by protesters in Madison.

Alas, the impulse that sends Smithsonian curators scurrying off to Wisconsin is nothing new. Andrew Ferguson memorably described the ideological deformation of the NMAH in a December 15, 2008, cover story for this magazine, “The Past Isn’t What It Used to Be”:

At the Smithsonian the curators appeared lost in a dorm room bull session or the defense of a second-rate dissertation. A wall plaque from a recent exhibit gives the flavor: “In daily life, national identity often merges, overlaps, and interacts with many other kinds of identities, [which] can help illuminate the forces that have shaped American history.” The plaque was alongside a display of a cheesehead hat from the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

The theorizing of social history offered curators an excuse to display anything. The castoffs of popular culture proved irresistible—and not just celebrity-touched “icons” like Archie Bunker’s chair, still bearing the imprint of Carroll O’Connor’s hallowed buttocks, or the zippered sweater from Mister Rogers’s creepy neighborhood. One of thousands of Barbie dolls manufactured in 1960 could qualify; ditto a Swanson’s TV dinner tray from 1967, a pair of Keds sneakers, a Topps baseball card, a nurse’s cap. These along with that Clinton-Gore cheese-head were part of a display called “Treasures”: “One hundred fifty of our most prized and important artifacts.” 

Sometimes the criteria seemed more journalistic than historical. When cops busted a sweatshop in El Monte California in 1995, Smithsonian curators swooped in, dismantled the room, and trucked it back to the museum in Washington, where it was reassembled and labeled “iconic.” In the 1980s, AIDS activists could scarcely keep their famous quilt together for fear of NMAH curators’ grabbing another scrap to show museumgoers. 

The detritus from Madison will be right at home.

Sentences We Didn’t Finish

"According to the list makers at Forbes, I am the 50th most powerful person in the world—not as powerful as the Pope (No. 5) but more powerful than the president of the United Arab Emirates (56). Vanity Fair, another arbiter of what matters, ranked me the 26th most influential person in the country. The New York Observer, narrowing the universe to New York, put me 15th on its latest .  .  . ” (Bill Keller, New York Times, March 13, 2011).

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