Button, Button, Who’s Got My Button?

campaign buttons

by Taffy Cannon

My “Sluts for Obama” button arrived on Friday.

Elephant with Goldwater glasses

It’s not my first political button, of course. That would be the gold elephant wearing black plastic Goldwater glasses that a friend of my father’s gave me in 1964. I wore that pin proudly and was always prepared to discuss A Choice Not an Echo, though I can’t remember anybody wanting to. Decades later when we were both very different people, I realized that Hillary Rodham had probably been wearing the same pin on her winter coat that year, in a different suburban neighborhood of our native Chicago.

By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 1968, I was a junior Poli Sci major at Duke and all hell was breaking loose in the political world.

I’d worked the first part of that summer in a loose Congressional internship and had some equally loose connections to the Democratic National Convention, being held in August in the town where my family just happened to live.  A Duke grad working as a Humphrey campaign speechwriter was my entrée to an inside view of a lot of stuff that my contemporaries protesting across Michigan Avenue in Grant Park never got to see.  Although I loved being quietly embedded, a part of me yearned to be over there in the park with them, and when they wandered into the lobby of the Essex Inn where I sat at a Humphrey literature table in a Humphrey dress, I always provided plenty of balloons to fill with water.

About that Humphrey dress. It rendered me invisible everywhere, and inside the Conrad Hilton gave me sufficient access that at one point I wandered into an upstairs room which held nothing but a gargantuan ABC TV camera aimed out the window. When I left a few minutes later, nobody ever knew I’d been there.

In fact, I had two different Humphrey dresses, a fact I have never before revealed in public.

The first was an honest-to-God paper dress in the style of Carnaby Street, and I wore it with the equally ridiculous Hubie Baby psychedelic campaign button. When the dress began to disintegrate like a paper towel in the torpid heat of Chicago in August, I replaced it with the more permanent version.  So permanent, in fact, that it is probably still sitting in a landfill, crisp as the moment it poured out of the test tube—ready to spring back to life and jump into the fashion fray. That blue-and-green minidress was constructed of the kind of double knit polyester which would shortly have a good run in turquoise leisure suits for middle-aged men. It was as impenetrable as contemporary body armor and equally attractive.

George Wallace button

I scooped up a whole lot of political buttons that week in Chicago, and I was hooked. That autumn back in North Carolina, the boyfriend who would become my husband picked up a George Wallace button the size of a demitasse saucer in a downtown Durham storefront. We’d already been wearing issue-related buttons for a while: the Poor People’s Campaign, a peace sign with one black finger and one white, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

Since then, I’ve become a somewhat random collector, and have acquired a goodly amount of political memorabilia. We pick up stuff at yard sales and every four years my husband renews some contacts in New Hampshire, where candidacies bloom and wither. Once I had a windfall when a friend of a friend visiting from Philadelphia turned out to own a novelty business that had been pumping out independent buttons since at least 1964.  He sent me one of everything he had in the warehouse, starting with “I Hate Barry.”

I’ve got bumper stickers, posters, $3 bills, t-shirts, books by well-heeled independents like Steve Forbes and Ross Perot, and t-shirts from Clinton and Buchanan. There’s a VHS produced for the 1992 Clinton campaign in New Hampshire  and a Dennis Kucinich DVD from 2004. To light the pack of cigarettes—yes, genuine cigarettes, and apparently this used to happen all the time—promoting Mike Dukakis for President in 1988, you can use matchbooks announcing “Hello Democrats! Welcome to Chicago” from 1968.  I have a Hillary doormat.

know that a nail file saying “Romney for Governor” is genuine because it features a grinning elephant head, and today’s Republican elephant never smiles. I even have a life-sized blow-up bust of Ronald Reagan. He’s of limited current utility, though he would probably work as a second passenger for the sort of scofflaw who cheats in HVOC lanes at night.

But what I really love are the buttons.

They hang in shadow boxes in my family room, with themes like Winners, Losers, Causes I’ve Believed In, Women, 1968 Democratic Convention, and Nixon.  Yep, the Trickster has a whole shadow box of his own, and in fact he’s outgrown it. It’s not big enough to include the business envelope printed top-to-bottom along the right with jail bars and a body to complete the 32-cent Richard Nixon cent postage stamp. Southern California being Nixon Country, good stuff pops up now and again around here. I even have a pin that spells his name out in rhinestones.

The current campaign is so relentlessly negative that I need to regularly reassure myself that it wasn’t always so bad.  Indeed, my personal collection includes only a handful of negative pieces predating the late 80s. One is a ribbed plastic button with two different views depending on how you hold it: a young Bobby Kennedy and “Lower the Voting Age to 10.” Another is the 1000% Promissory Note with Tom Eagleton’s picture and the tagline: “McGovern says he’s behind me 1000%.”

More recently there’s much greater variety in buttons, which in the dull old days used to announce the candidate’s name in red, white and blue. This represents a sea change, actually, coming as a direct result of how political buttons are currently made and distributed.  It used to be that a national campaign would order hundreds of thousands, then give them all away, often through local offices.  People wore them, and it was of critical importance that they carry a union bud.

No more.  In 2012, political buttons are both irrelevant and obsolete.

The official campaign money once spent on buttons now all goes into direct-mail and TV/radio ads, though there are usually a few officially sanctioned ones.  The interesting buttons of today are all made by individual entrepreneurs, folks who don’t have to answer to anybody’s campaign chair.  I have plenty of those from the past quarter-century, many with a rude or downright antagonistic tone.  In one shadow box of these, Hanoi Jane’s Urinal Sticker (the iconic pose from the cover of her first exercise book, purchased from a vendor vet at the Vietnam Memorial) is right beside one of my personal favorites: a colorful three-inch button of “Hillary RODMAN Clinton—still as bad as she wants to be.” Hillary wears her hair is in a close-cut chartreuse Afro and she looks terrific.

Romney-Ryan button

Though the nice ladies at the Republican booth down at the Farmer’s Market gave me a Romney-Ryan button, I knew that if I wanted any kind of selection, I’d have to buy this year’s crop direct from the campaigns.  The websites seemed to make that easy, each featuring a store allowing you to purchase all the stuff that used to be free.

To make any purchase, I had to provide all manner of personal information, just like Sheldon Adelson or George Soros. My purchases, it seemed, were considered donations. And the very moment that I placed my orders with each campaign, I began to receive a blizzard of email solicitations to donate more. The content of these messages clearly came from parallel universes, sometimes half a dozen in a single day. Every single one of them asked for money, with a suggested donation based on what I’d paid for the buttons.

The buttons that never came.

Obama buttons

I placed my order with the Obama campaign on September 3, lucking into a sale, then waited for a sale on the Romney website on September 15.  On October 5, I sent emails to both campaign stores asking where my buttons were and got no response from either. I wrote again on October 13, and was about to try for a third time when I heard from the Obama people. Part of what I wanted had been on back order, but was being shipped even as Siena in Customer Service wrote on October 19 to apologize.

No response at all from the Romney campaign.

As my frustration grew about this, a writer friend mentioned a guy she knew in St. Louis, Button Bob, whose big seller this season was “Sluts for Obama.”  Bob sounded like my kind of man, so I found his website and placed my order, which also included “Obama – Born in the USA.”

That was last Monday, and the buttons arrived on Friday. Viva the private sector, and bravo to Button Bob, whose buttons are also mostly cheaper than the big boys.  Though I do wish I could figure out a way to justify spending fifty bucks for the Etch-a-Mitt with its tiny attached working Etch-a-Sketch.

Sluts for Obama