Political history for the taking
Political history for the taking
Curators hunt for convention gold
By CALVIN WOODWARD Associated Press
Friday, July 30, 2004
Boston — History roamed the aisles at the Democratic National Convention, getting in people’s faces, asking for buttons, trying to acquire practically everything that wasn’t nailed down, as well as some things that are.
Harry Rubenstein and Larry Bird are a Smithsonian duo intent on preserving signs, hats and any other memorabilia they can talk Democrats into handing over.
The curators are expert schmoozers as well as scavengers. They charmed people on the convention floor as they covetously pursued everything from that lady’s pink scarf labeled “Give Bush a Pink Slip” (she happily handed it over) to the tall state standards on the floor (no dice).
“We know we’re on to the right thing if they don’t want to part with it,” Rubenstein said.
And these guys are tenacious.
Bird, tall, wry and poker-faced, carried the satchel, an oversize black one that almost touches the floor, big enough for posters. Rubenstein, shorter, drops things into the bag.
Trinkets are not trite at the convention.
The flashlights that made up a Sept. 11 commemoration constellation the first night are exactly what the Smithsonian wants to collect — an artifact specific to a certain period, a particular event.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has more than 90,000 objects in its political history collection. Only a tiny fraction will be on display at any one time.
No one knows whether the “Kerry Rocks My Socks” sign at this convention will someday rival in popularity the still-ubiquitous “I Like Ike” buttons from the Eisenhower era. Rubenstein and Bird take no chances.
“I don’t want that bag of trash,” Larry said, pointing to garbage. “I don’t want signs so big we can’t carry it. We don’t want 10 of the same sign.
“Other than that, we probably want it.”
Less than a half-hour into their first expedition, they scored. At a counter selling $10 buttons printed with the buyer’s name, the manager donated one.
The curators noted that personalized mementos like this button are a recent convention phenomenon. They think T-shirts are eclipsing buttons, because the message on shirts is bigger and they raise more money.
The woman with the pink scarf gave it to the curators and told them, “You have to come back, I’m going to do my Ohio hat tomorrow.”
Rubenstein saw the scarf as a link in history’s chain, noting that scarves have been used as political symbols since the suffragettes.
He has scavenged most conventions since 1988. Bird’s first was in 1984. He walked in when Mario Cuomo was giving his riveting keynote to Democrats and assumed, wrongly, that conventions would all be that exciting. He still wishes he had found an impromptu Cuomo sign from that event.
Little is impromptu anymore at the political conventions. That’s just one of the tales told in the trinkets.
The Smithsonian tracks the changing conventions of the conventions — from a time when parties were grateful you took a bumper sticker to a time when they charge a couple bucks for one.
For more on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, go to www.americanhistory.si.edu/.
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