A huge banner of Franklin D. Roosevelt dominates the study, overlooking a bewildering mishmash of Americana, from rooster candy jars to gumball machines to 80 years of campaign buttons, posters, flags and license plates. Robert Robert Fratkin, supervising his Crisco cans and industrial stained glass from behind a desk buried under the aftermath of a century of American political life, his collection is tantamount to a mission, a passion, a duty - an avocation with no tax break and with a mandatory safe-deposit box for 75 percent of the collection's value.
The safe-deposit box is for more than security: Some of Fratkin's political campaign items are "one-of-a-kind artifacts, the little pieces, within a political context, of the overall social and cultural history of America." Fratkin is determined that he will save as many of those little pieces as possible, protecting them from being destroyed and thus lost to civilization.
Surrounded by leering Jerry Ford and Richard Nixon masks, with tweakable noses and bulging brows, Mussolini ashtrays and stacks of styrofoam "straw" hats, Fratkin cites Robert Nathan's '50s book, The weans, in which archaeologists erroneously reconstruct American society based on the random garbage of an era, as a not altogether humorous indication of what can happen when only part of a society's "ephemera" survives.
A second vice president with the brokerage firm Shearson Hayden Stone, Fratkin retreats to his Kalorama red, white and blue museum on evenings and weekends like a man obsessed. A voracious four-hour-a-night reader, he backs up his campaign items with a double-rowed wall of books of American political and legal history from 1890 to the present, European history from the end of World War I through the end of World War II, and American biography.
"When John Toland wrote his book on Adolf Hitler, he spent about four days here, going through some of my books he could'nt find anywhere else," says the collector, puffing steadily on his Watergate Easy Break In pipe, and occasionally tugging at his neatly trimmed mustache.
Recently elected national president of the American Political Items Collectors, Fratkin frets about people tossing buttons and banners into the trash without recognizing their value. Bristling slightly when that value is is questioned, Fratkin steams, "Why is it important to have Mozart's original scores or Shakespeare's Folio? Why collect old newspapers, for instance? Because they give a more immediate understanding of an era than any history book can!"
His personal collection, says Fratkin, "begins in 1896, with the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of celluloid buttons. Today, most buttons are tin lithograph buttons - where the machine does most of the work - while celluloid buttons represent a time when machines were expensive and labor was cheap."
Lining up rows of early celluloids next to President Ford lithographs, Fratkin points to a Ford button with merely two white words. He wistfully compares it to the round celluloid "Equality Button," a 1904 specialty depicting George Washington Carver seated at dinner with Teddy Roosevelt - at the White House.
"Which has the most message?" queries Fratkin. "Today, buttons have fewer words, fewer faces - something that is easily read and is "cost effective." I think the changes in these buttons demonstrate today's lack of personal involvement in the political process, our apathy towards voting, etc."
Fratkin's wife, Susan, calls him a "pack rat," but supports his promise with the same intensity. "Have you see the "Harding Nose-Thumber"?" she demands. "It's a metal silhouette of Harding, designed to be pinned to a lapel. Push a lever at the bottom of his heel and his hand comes up and thumbs his nose, and a devil's tail comes out the back. That's what Harding was doing: saying "To hell with everyone! I'm going to win this election!"" A far cry from the plain simplicity of the Ford buttons.
While Fratkin refuses to discuss the value of his collection for security reasons, he admits that he owns between 5,000 to 10,000 different items, with buttons representing perhaps two-thirds of his collection. Ranking himself as the second or third biggest collector in the country of inaugural and campaign license plates, Fratkin emphasizes that he collects rarities.
Fratkin's absorption with campaign paraphernalia began in 1956 when he worked in the Adlai Stevenson campaign in Ventura, Calif., his home town. Then 17, Fratkin's interest in things political was already well-established. By 1961, he considered himself a full-fledged collector.
"I came to Washington because I decided I would work for the government for five years. I guess I feel if you are qualified to do it, you should," he says, though he admits that he quit because he was unwilling to work for the Nixon administration.
The leap to finance was an easy one for Fratkin, who regards the stock market as essentially "game theory," another passion with Fratkin since college days. But he denies that his collection is simply another investment.
"I avoid thinking of it that way," he insists. "I have to know how much this stuff is worth, of course, in order to know how much to pay for something. But this is not business. I do it because it's important - and because I like it." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Paul Feinberg