By Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action
February 28, 2005
During the course of a long presidential campaign, one meets all sorts
of people. There are national campaign staff and local campaign
staff, ardent volunteers and supporters of one candidate or another,
national reporters and local reporters, and Larry and Harry.
Larry and Harry are Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein, curators of the
Smithsonian Institution's political history division. Typically
one can expect to find the duo trekking about in New Hampshire
during the waning days of the primary campaign and later at the major
party conventions, trolling the floor, black portfolio case in
Larry Bird offered some observations to DEMOCRACY IN ACTION during a
February 25, 2005 interview, part of which is transcribed below.
Bird is particularly interested in three-dimensional items that are
generated during the course of a campaign. He observes that a
campaign, given a million dollars, is likely to put it into TV
advertising because the results are measurable. The campaign can
do poll, run the ad, and do another poll. By contrast if a
campaign were to put a million dollars into campaign buttons, the
out the door and there is no way to measure the effect. Bird
that the human transaction of person handing a pen or a campaign button
or other such item to a voter has an impact that the campaigns should
Interview Excerpt DEMOCRACY IN ACTION asked Bird to
talk about how his work had changed...
LARRY BIRD: When I first started working here I worked for a
curator who had gone to the national conventions since, I want to say,
the late '60s or early '70s. Before that the strategy was
basically to collect collectors who were sort of semi-national figures
in their own right, and they would have things that formed the basis of
a collection, like Ralph Becker and those people. Just
indefatiguable collectors. And [former curator Herb] Collins
started going to the conventions and that's sort of where the
collection activity was at the time. You were able to focus in or
keep a focus on a national level... It wasn't that you
weren't interested in the state and local stuff, it's just that
there wasn't really a way to handle it without getting completely out
The only change that occurred within that, when I first started working
was we sort of went off in a direction and began to collect television
commercials. And this was on tape and we would collect them on
3/4" U-Matic tapes, and keeping it at a
national level. But this quickly was sort of surpassed by the
easy access and availability of the taping technologies and
equipment. In other words now every poli sci department in the
country has a collection of this stuff so what are we doing? So
we went back and refocused our energy and efforts on three-dimensional
stuff, which is where it is today. So there was a sort of
digression in the early '80s; we have a really nice office reference
collection of those kinds of things today.
But how it's changed over the years in terms of... I'll tell you
a story. This is the way into this whole thing, because I think
this is really important. I was the first one that went to New
Hampshire, and I think it was maybe the second cycle that I was in New
Hampshire in '88 or so; the first time I went was '84. The second
time I went -- Harry [Rubenstein] went on that trip too -- and we
walked and tried to do all of the headquarters to get some one thing
from each of the campaigns before they just dropped out. And we
quickly developed a theory that the campaigns that were doing the worst
had the most to give and conversely the ones that were doing the best
in terms of popularity and connecting with people had the least to
And so I recall going into a Paul Simon headquarters in Manchester and
the place was cleaned out. Now keep in mind this is a day or two
before the actual election. It's cleaned out. And we went
and told the guy everything. Hi. We're from the
Smithsonian. Hi. We collect and this, that and the
other. And he said, well the only thing I have left, and he
pointed to this box of VHS campaign biographies in the corner.
And this is something they would send around in lieu of the candidate
to a coffee klatch, and it's a 20 minute or so spiel from the
candidate. I mean they all do this. And I said well sure,
I'd like to take a couple copies of that, but you know say what about
that lapel pin that you're wearing? And he just sort of shrunk
back in horror. It was a little Paul Simon bow tie lapel
pin. And he just shrunk back. And he just..."Oh, you
know...the Senator gave this to me. I couldn't give that to
you. Please don't ask me for that." This kind of
And right there, I kind of got this, a light bulb went on in my head
that that's really what you want to collect, what you can't collect at
the moment. Something that is so personal, has so much personal
meaning to the person. It sort of transcends politics in a way,
but that's what you want, that's what you want to get. You want
to get what they can't give you... You began really taking notice
of this as a phenomenon.
In New Hampshire it's so special because they actually believe that
this stuff has an effect. It's probably the last place in the
United States if not on Earth where they actually believe in the power
of a yard sign or a thing that you put on your car or that it's
something that you're making and wearing, and you need foot
soldiers. I mean it really is retail politics at its best.
You need things to hang on people's doors if they're not there.
It really is a three-dimensional kind of political world. Well
some of it's two-dimensional because of the signs.
But I can remember going into the basement of an Alan Cranston--this
was in '84. I was making my rounds. And election eve.
I'm: "Hello! Hello!" There's nobody there. I finally
find a room and there's one guy and he's sitting in the middle of the
floor and around the room are these green Cranston signs. There
may be like 40 signs on stakes ready to go. And I told him my
whole thing. Hi. I'm from the Smithsonian--. And he
just kind of had that glazed look in his eye and he looked at me and he
said, "I need every one of those signs."
* * *
Rhapsody on a
Convention Hat In the storage area are all sorts of treasures. In one
corner of the room is the blue and red Maryland standard from the 2004
Convention in Boston. Bird and Rubenstein originally targeted
the Massachusetts standard, but that ended up being somehow sawed off,
complete with its PVC pole and carried onto the stage.
had taken care to have a back up; some members of the Maryland
delegation stood watch over their state's sign at the convention's
end. After hunting
screwdriver, Bird and Rubenstein came away with the Maryland
sign. Nearby, on top of a storage unit are some signs carried by
in front of the Supreme Court in the matter of Bush v. Gore.
In another part of the room, Bird opened a cabinet containing perhaps
two dozen shirts and dresses on hangers. The most noticable item
in the cabinet was a red-and-black plaid Lamar Alexander shirt.
Reaching into the bottom of the cabinet, an assistant pulled out a red
felt hat. The hat was made by a New Mexico delegate to the 2004
Democratic convention. Bird described the hat:
LARRY BIRD...Space Shuttle
iconography, kitchen refrigerator magnets. It has Indian corn,
has a couple of little minaturized Kachina dolls. It has a couple
of arrowheads, and the crowning achievement, the thing that gets the
most attention othere than all of the other things I've described, is
the brim sort of ringed with these little red dangling chili
peppers. There must be at least a hundred little chili peppers
dangling from the brim of this lady's hat.
And you know the people that go to the conventions, they kind of
understand what their role is. Certain people are pretty
knowledgable about this in terms of how they get seen and how they
express their regional identity, let alone their political
identity. The more astute ones will make a great hat like this
lady always does. They'll sit on the aisle and they'll be
endlessly photographed and discussed.
Question: Did you spot this lady on day one?
LARRY BIRD: Yeah she was there on day one out in the parking lot.
Question: You determined to get that hat?
LARRY BIRD: Well we looked at it and we discussed [it], and we want to
get a least one or two hats each cycle, and try to get the best hats,
and she's won it twice in a row now. And I don't know if that
says something about everone else or this is maybe a dying art that
isn't sort of passed on as a tradition to young people. I mean I
was telling you earlier about the young woman [at the 2004 Republican
National Convention in New York] too young to have known the tradition
of the convention hat, wearing a hat that her mother had made that
represented the Granite state, with green Easter grass and the giant
chunk of granite--foam rubber that looked like granite. It was a
very kind of endearing kind of thing to see, [the woman] just sitting
there sort of nonchalantly wearing her hat.
Larry Bird holds a
program from the 2001 exhibition "Paint by Number."