Larry and Harry
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 hand. 

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 buttons go out the door and there is no way to measure the effect.  Bird believes 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 not overlook.

Larry Bird started out at the Smithsonian as a technician.  Interestingly, the most popular exhibition he has worked on has seemingly little connection to politics.  "Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s" ran from April to December 2001.  More recently Bird and Rubenstein just took down "Vote: The Machinery of Democracy."  

Curator Larry Bird in his office.

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 of control. 

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 give. 

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 thing. 

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 Democratic National 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.  Fortunately they 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 down a screwdriver, Bird and Rubenstein came away with the Maryland sign.  Nearby, on top of a storage unit are some signs carried by protesters 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."

Copyright © 2005  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.