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Political Campaigns That Push All the Wrong Buttons

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page C01

When delegates gather at next week's Democratic National Convention, few of their campaign buttons will look like winners. A powerful art form has lost its punch.

"Really dopey" is the nicest thing Milton Glaser, father of American graphic design, can say about this season's models. Worse for the candidates of either party, he calls today's designs "alarmingly ineffective."

_____Correction_____
In some editions of the Post, a July 24 Style article omitted the president's middle initial in the Web address of his campaign's official memorabilia store, Georgewbushstore.com. The equivalent site for the Democratic nominee, which was not in the article, is KerryGear.com.


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It is an unfortunate fact of modern political life that campaign operatives like what's safe, and that makes buttons bland.

On the Democratic side, presidential hopeful John Kerry is promoted with predictable models of red, white and blue patriotism. A small American flag links "John" and "Kerry" or "Kerry" with running mate "Edwards." The Bush-Cheney logo uses the same fundamentals. Names are written in a different typeface, but white letters stand out on the same navy background. And -- surprise! -- there's that American flag serving as a hyphen again, this time linking the president and his veep.

Glaser is scathing in his indictment: "Both candidates think alike."

He's not talking policy. What he means is that both campaigns rely on the same symbolic references to conjure up comfy notions of country and worthiness. The symbols are "banal," Glaser complains, but so uncomplicated that campaign advisers feel at ease approving them. The operative theory is that the masses won't understand anything new and intellectually challenging. Glaser says the public is simply being low-balled by decision makers who are risk-averse -- and uninformed about the potential of design.

"They don't understand the range of possibilities," Glaser says. "Everybody is saying the same thing. Everything has been flattened out to the same voice. It flattens out to the least offensive and least effective form of communication."

Buttons certainly aren't going to turn the tide of an election. But neither will a deluge of bad portraits, which is the other sad staple of campaign buttonry.

Glaser, winner of this year's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement, has designed plenty of icons, notably the "I Love NY" logo. Less well-known are two series of highly political issue buttons, which are offered for sale through the Nation magazine and its online store at TheNation.com. There are no flags, stars, stripes and political animals, only words set against the cheeriest colors in a Crayola box.

The content might zing a few heartstrings at the Democratic convention. One button urges, "Leave No CEO behind." Several express concern about the continued smooth functioning of democracy with messages such as, "SECRECY Promotes Tyranny." Those who order all six get one free: "Bush Divides Us." A second collection, launched last month, plays off the presidential middle initial. Six buttons display a large letter "W" followed by a position statement, as in " 'W' Stands for Wrong."

"We're trying to get to the outer edges," Glaser says.

However one reacts to the message, the buttons are models of simple, but powerful design. In the case of "DISSENT Protects Democracy," one dominant word is followed by "a little italic as if you're clearing your throat." Glaser calls that a design decision that looks as if no one made one.

"This is not about celebrating somebody's cleverness," he says.

Republicans have options, as well. PoliticalShop.com online store sells a three-inch button with President Bush dressed as Superman under the legend, "Don't Pull on Uncle Sam's Cape." Among the memorabilia sold at the official GeorgeBushStore.com site, there is a "W-04 Farm-Ranch Team" button, which looks like a cattle brand. An "Interstate W-04" insignia looks like a natural for a campaign button, but it is offered as mouse pad and magnet. There is also a silver "W" belt buckle, which, like the campaign button, gets up close and personal with the candidate of one's choice.

Buttons have been used in American politics at least as long as presidents have been elected. Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, traces the art form back to small, round metal pins worn at the inauguration of George Washington, which are the oldest examples in the museum's collection of 20,000 to 30,000 buttons.

On Monday, Rubenstein and fellow curator Larry Bird will be in Boston, scavenging buttons and other memorabilia at the Democratic convention. (The Smithsonian is a regular at all conventions, which keeps its 90,000-item political history collection up to date.) Rubenstein says buttons are among the hardest items to persuade people to part with.

"It is personally attached to you," he says. "They become very important."

Materials and forms have changed little since 1896, when Republican William McKinley defeated Democrat William J. Bryan. A reproduction set of 50 buttons from 1896 to 1984 is currently being offered on eBay. Some 20th-century classics, such as the brilliantly simple "I Like Ike" button from the 1950s, are part of an online exhibition from the Duke University Special Collections Library at scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/americavotes/buttons.html.

Rubenstein says that buttons contribute to the building of long-term relationships with candidates or issues. Typically stashed in drawers at home, buttons remind wearers long after of where they had been and what they believed in. But he does not ascribe vote-getting power to buttons. At a time when the prime concern of politicos is "how do you move that 1 percent," he says, "the button really isn't in that equation. . . . Buttons are really not about convincing voters to vote for something. What they really are are things that motivate people for generations, or at least years."

Glaser is not afraid of wearing his feelings on his lapel. He has created a special button just for himself. The designer borrowed a line from Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address, then tweaked it into a compelling mantra for Democrats in 2004. Unfortunately for delegates in Boston, the New York designer has the only button that reads: "The only thing we have to fear is Bush himself."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company