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New Exhibit on Old Campaigns Shows Politics As Usual - 2004-07-23

As Democrats and Republicans prepare to formally nominate their presidential candidates for the upcoming 2004 election, a new exhibit traces the colorful history of American political campaigns. As Leah Krakinowski reports from VOA's New York Bureau, the show at New York's Historical Society shows politics have not changed much since George Washington was elected the first president of the United States.

In 1821, when America's fifth president, James Monroe, was campaigning for re-election, he delivered an "I am a good guy, so vote for me" message in his campaign song, a popular tactic still used today.

Monroe Campaign Song: "Among the best pilots say who leads the band, Monroe, yes, Monroe he indeed is the man. Who cares not for office, nor power, or place, whose merits and virtues the highest would race. Whose country is his idol, her good all his care and in terrible times who would never despair."

The Society's historian, Kathleen Hulser, says the exhibit's political paraphernalia, slogans, songs, posters, buttons and handkerchiefs, made candidates of yesteryear appear like ordinary people, similar to the way campaigning politicians try to portray themselves today as "outsiders," who are not part of the Washington power elite.

"There is the just plain folks campaign theme, which dates way, way back to the early 19th century," she notes. "There's the idea that a war hero is a good person to lead our country. That is an idea with many roots, be it being seen with a sword at your side or a helmet on your head. Another perennial theme is that a candidate who looks dignified and presidential is somebody you ought to want to elect."

Political candidates in the 20th century have developed more sophisticated means of conveying their messages. But Kathleen Hulser says what candidates actually say is not radically different from 150 years ago.

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, wisely used the relatively new medium of radio to make friends with the people, to present his policies and his points of view in a very chatty, agreeable way," she adds. "This is something that you can see being done in 1828 in a newspaper with Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson was somebody who turned a negative into a positive by both using the media well and making the most of what might have been a drawback. Jackson, unlike many of our earlier presidents, was not very well educated. His opponents, picking on him because he was less well schooled, called him a jackass. He took the symbol the jackass, that is a donkey, and turned it into a famous and positive symbol of the Democratic Party recognized today."

Margie Hofer is curator of the New York Historical Society's exhibit, "If Elected, Campaigning for the Presidency," and a component exhibit, "Campaigns on Cotton". She also says the exhibits show that campaign media may have changed, but the public trading of political barbs has not.

"People like to say the elections are getting nastier and more divisive, but really we have evidence of that from the very start," she says.

Ms. Hofer points to the display of a vivid red handkerchief, which was made for William Henry Harrison during the campaign of 1840. The kerchief bears the words, Tippecanoe, which refers to an 1811 battle fought against a Native American tribe, William Henry Harrison, then-governor of the Indiana Territory, who led the fight, and pictures of large barrels of hard cider.

"The kerchief encapsulates all the slogans and rhetoric of the 1840 campaign," she adds. "Martin Van Buren's campaign ridiculed Harrison as an old has-been. That he was a war hero who was content to retire to his log cabin and drink hard cider. His Whig party seized upon the insult and turned it in to a positive thing and made it the slogan of their campaign. Harrison was popularized as a backwoods boy, and this worked and really rode him into the White House."

Historian Kathleen Hulser says even Abraham Lincoln, a revered icon of the American Presidency, was subjected to malicious tactics during his political campaign.

"They criticized the candidate's wife, they criticized the candidate's language, they criticized his suit, his beard, and his demeanor," she notes. "Abraham Lincoln was ridiculed for having pants that were too short and looking gawky on a horse. So many of the things that people characterize as the nastiness of today's political campaigns, to a historian, sound like the nastiness of all the political campaigns for all time."

Kathleen Hulser says the New York Historical Society's exhibit defies the popular assumption that there ever was a golden age of political campaigns.

"If you look at Eisenhower's ground-breaking TV advertisements in the 1952 campaign, you see that 50 years ago, it was not necessarily issues that triumphed," she explains. "Ike's commercials were one minute long, and they presented him as a man straight out of Kansas, and his message was mostly, 'I am a nice guy, I led us in World War II, and wouldn't you like to elect me?' Compare that with the guy who ran against him, Adlai Stevenson, who gave a traditional, issue-oriented platform-rich, very sophisticated long speech that was so long that the TV broadcast had to cut him off. Guess who won? General Eisenhower, straight out of Kansas. Not the issues, but a one-minute-long 'I like Ike' won the day."

According to Ms. Hulser, no one at the time realized that Eisenhower's folksy image was being crafted by Rosso Reeves, the most politically savvy advertising man on New York's Madison Avenue, the commercial and political hub of the American advertising industry.

"If Elected, Campaigning for the Presidency" runs through November 3, one day after Election Day.