Campaign Tactics Revisited
Memorabilia Offers a Look at Past Strategies
A campaign pamphlet detailing President Warren Harding’s supposed case of gonorrhea. Cigarette packs promoting 1952 presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower that could be turned in to their campaigns for prizes. A Bill Richardson thong.
These are some of the more than 1 million pieces of political
memorabilia Jordan Wright has gathered over the past 40 years. Until last year, the collection had never been seen by the public.
But some of the items — save for the thong — are now pictured in Wright’s book “Campaigning for President,” released earlier this month. Wright has been touring the country with his collection, which in June will move to the Museum of the City of New York.
Wright says he has never had his memorabilia appraised, but some of the items undoubtedly are worth a fortune — for instance, the flag with a picture of George Washington that was used to celebrate the first president’s swearing-in. Wright bought it from an elderly couple as a poor college student in 1978 for $100 — on credit at $25 every two weeks.
So how did Wright, a lawyer and magazine publisher, come to take up the hobby?
“It started when I was 10 years old, in 1968,” Wright said. “One day after school I got off at the wrong bus stop, and I wound up at the Bobby Kennedy for President headquarters.”
After hearing a campaign speech, Wright picked up a Kennedy button, and then it occurred to him: “If Bobby Kennedy had buttons, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy and the others must have buttons.
“And then I thought that this probably wasn’t invented in 1968, that they probably had buttons and bumper stickers and posters before that. So I spent quite a bit of time going around looking for things.”
Forty years later, Wright lives in a Manhattan loft that is “covered floor to ceiling in political memorabilia.”
He said he has met every president from Richard Nixon on, and that a number have visited his home.
“I had an argument with Bill Clinton,” Wright said with a laugh. “He thought he had a complete collection of 300 buttons with his picture or name on them.
“I said, ‘Sir, I have 6,000 buttons of you, so I know your collection’s not complete. It’s good, it’s a nice start, but it’s not 6,000 buttons.’”
Wright’s favorite items include:
• a William McKinley doll that, turned over, reveals a small black baby doll — used to fuel a rumor that McKinley fathered an illegitimate child. “People keep talking about how politics this year is so dirty, with the Clinton marriage or Barack Obama’s drug use. But the McKinley illegitimate child doll — that’s dirty politics,” Wright said.
• a miniature Benjamin Harrison whiskey jug. Candidates would throw wild whiskey parties, Wright said, and at the end they would send partygoers home with mini jugs so they would wake up in the morning and say, “‘Harrison got me drunk and I had a great time, so that’s who I’m going to vote for.’ It’s not one of the great policy debates, but I bet it swayed a lot of voters.”
Favorites from the 2008 campaign include the Richardson thong (“What is he going for, the stripper vote?”) and a Rudy Giuliani “onesie” Wright got from a campaign boutique in New Hampshire.
“Now for me a boutique is for ladies who go to lunch and then go to a boutique,” Wright said. “But I went to the Giuliani boutique and I bought a onesie that says ‘Rudy in ’08.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘How early do we want our child to see a shrink? Even before he speaks?’”
There are about 700 items pictured in the book, and a similar number will appear at the museum in New York.
“I expect the onesie will make it,” Wright said. “The museum has not yet agreed to the thong.”
Wright hopes his collection sheds light on how much campaigns have changed.
“Back then, people were not literate and couldn’t go to Roll Call or The New York Times or The Des Moines Register and get regular commentary on the campaigns,” he said. “Campaigns had to do everything they could to create these colorful, lively items so that people would get involved in the process of democracy. So yeah, they made parasols and all sorts of stuff.”
Wright said it’s gratifying to see his work rewarded.
“All of my dreams are coming true. It’s really, really true,” he said. “I never thought people would find this interesting, and I was wrong.”