“Elect Thomas E. Dewey President,” proclaims a green pennant. It hangs above a maquette of a Harry S. Truman presidential medallion that was never struck. There’s an engraving of a sober-looking Grover Cleveland under the simple message, “For President.” There are inaugural ball tickets and programs, signed presidential calling cards, memorial ribbons mourning dead presidents . . .
Are you ever, I ask Dan, overwhelmed by the naked ambition that this stuff represents, by the politicalness of it all?
“My grandmother revered politicians,” Dan begins. A widow, she raised 12 kids in West Virginia and looked at politicians as positive figures. They represented hope in her life. Who else could get things done?
“Nowadays, people are convinced that public service is bad somehow,” Dan says. “My grandmother believed just the opposite.”
Dan believes that, too. He was a history nut when he was growing up in Nitro, W.Va., something that only intensified after he came to Washington in 1972 to be a page on Capitol Hill. He went to Georgetown University, worked as a congressional staffer, and then struck out on his own and founded a communications company.
When he’d saved some money, he decided to start collecting the tangible artifacts of the thing he loved.
“I called the Smithsonian and said, ‘Who do I talk to about political memorabilia?’ ” Dan says. Among the names he was given was that of a man in Allentown, Pa., who had spent years building a collection of Americana but was ready to let it go. There were three stipulations: Dan couldn’t see the collection. He had to buy it all. And he had to agree not to resell it.
“I promise you,” the collector told Dan, “it’s worth many times what I’m asking.”
Dan paid $15,000 for everything. That was in 1992. When he got the boxes home and started opening them, the first thing he came across was a letter from Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, about the death of his daughter.
“It was like Christmas for weeks,” Dan recalls of the time spent exploring his purchase.
This spring, Dan’s company moved to new offices near the Clarendon Metro, and he and his wife, Debby, spent hours hanging the collection.
Dan laughs when he hears pundits talking about how ugly political campaigns have become, as if today’s attack ads were something new. “My God,” he says of such commentators, “they have the historical perspective of a gnat!”
He points out a poster depicting Truman, dressed in a white sheet and hood, standing in front of a tree with a noose hanging from it. The text reads, “Vote for Dewey. Kill the Klan.”
Media moguls dabbling in politics? Here’s a ribbon with William Randolph Hearst’s name and face on it, along with the legend, “Our choice for president.”
Someone’s, maybe, but publisher Hearst couldn’t get nominated.
Contested elections? Dan has a ticket to the inaugural college of 1876. That was the year Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden.
Shades of Gore vs. Bush.
Among the odder items is a photograph of Dan Rather walking next to Lyndon Johnson, who grips the young reporter on the upper arm. The photo is signed by Johnson, with the inscription, “To Dan Rather, A warm human being and a newsman of independent intellect.”
Dan isn’t sure how it ended up in his collection. He contacted Rather and asked if he wanted it back, but Rather said he could keep it.
As I take in these relics of campaigns successful and unsuccessful, Dan says we should learn from the past.
“More historical perspective would serve people well — what people did well in the past and where they failed,” he says. “That’s written all over these walls.”
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