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Jewish World Review /Dec. 17, 1998 /28 Kislev, 5759


Mugger Boy Mugger's obsession

An Associated Press story I came across last week left me troubled. In it, reporter Ronald Powers writes about the disappearance of the campaign button, an artifact that’s been in decline for more than two decades, but was once a staple of political races, from town supervisor to president of the United States.

As Powers says, television advertising consumes most of a candidate’s budget, and so buttons, bumper stickers and lawn signs aren’t considered cost-effective.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was just a tot, five years old, I caught the political bug during the Nixon-Kennedy faceoff. I was fascinated by these shiny objects; it wasn’t the first time I’d seen them, since in our attic, when searching for comic books, I’d come across the odd "I Like Ike" number from the 50s, but these Kennedy buttons were brand new and I decided to start a collection. My parents were fierce Nixon partisans and my mom would take me down to the Nixon storefront where she’d pick up a batch of bumper stickers and buttons, schmoozing the suburban housewives who were manning the tables.

Trinkets from an era of smaller-scale politicking
Afterward, we’d walk over to Woolworth’s and order hot dogs and Cokes —a side plate of the crispiest fries went for a dime — and while my mother ate her dog, slathered with mustard and overflowing with kraut, she’d say, "We took in quite a haul today, didn’t we, Rusty?" And then she laughed, pleased at the giddy look on my face.

In ’64 I was nine and I’d wander into the headquarters with friends; when the women weren’t looking, we’d stuff our pockets. On occasion, we’d be busted and given a scolding, but I’d answer, "But ma’am, I’m handing out these Goldwater buttons all over the neighborhood, to every house on the block. Isn’t that the purpose of all this?" That would usually work. We’d then go over to the Johnson hq and perform the same maneuver.

1964 was a really fertile year; in addition to the AuH2O buttons, some that folded over on your pocket, the Democrats put a lot of money into small-time paraphernalia. One of the rare pieces I found that year was a Johnson-Kennedy button — RFK was running for Senate and was trailing the popular GOP incumbent Kenneth Keating and so, against his will, enlisted LBJ in the fight for New York. You can see on this page the reproduction of that button, with Bobby not smiling, symbolizing the disgusting compromise, in his mind, he had to make to get back into power.

Kennedy came to town that fall on a campaign swing, and my mother saw him give a speech at the Huntington firehouse. She hated all Kennedys, but especially Bobby, and when she came home there was just one revelation: "He’s more of a runt than I thought!"

Four years later I hit my prime: 13 years old, I was a Gene McCarthy volunteer (who, by the way, just announced he’s in favor of Clinton’s impeachment), splitting with my parents who were solidly behind Nixon, and wore a McCarthy button to school every day. However, as far as my growing collection, I ignored party affiliations and collected scads of buttons: Nixon/Agnew, RFK (before he was knocked off in Los Angeles), Humphrey/Muskie and assorted souvenirs from lesser races. The score of the year, however, came when my parents went down to Baltimore to visit one of my brothers at Johns Hopkins. My mother spent an hour or two in a George Wallace headquarters — Maryland, after all, was Wallace country — and came back with a rich bag of material: buttons, stickers, pens and pencils, pencil sharpeners, nail files — the whole shebang.

By this point my collection exceeded 1000 buttons, and my entire extended family would all contribute when they came across an item they thought I’d like. My Uncle Joe and Aunt Winnie gave me Dewey and Eisenhower buttons, Uncle Pete and Aunt Peggy sent along Beame and Lindsay knickknacks and my oldest brothers, off at college, would send home what they gathered.

I remember one Saturday morning when my mother thought my obsession had gotten out of control: I told her that I was going to spend one hour every weekend working on the collection. "Great," she said sarcastically, "I thought maybe you’d say you’d be practicing lacrosse or baseball, something to get you out of the house!"

Nonetheless, the following year, my parents went on a Southern road trip and when they returned they told me about the lunch they had with Lester Maddox, the notorious segregationist governor of Georgia. Apparently they were sightseeing and ran into Maddox’s wife; my mom had the gift of gab and one thing led to another and soon they were at the governor’s mansion, where Maddox signed a copy of an album of speeches he made, as well as every scrap of political paraphernalia he could find. It made my summer, even though I was a hippie who had just started smoking pot and tie-dying my BVD undershirts.

By the time the ’72 campaign rolled around I was older and less interested, although I’d pick up the occasional McGovern or Nixon button. Also, it was at this time that small-time politicking had given way to mass television buys and you just couldn’t find the material anymore. In Huntington, for example, the McGovern headquarters had a minor presence, located next to a head shop, and attracted very few voters.

I still have the collection, although most of it’s stored in our basement. I found the buttons pictured on this page in my kid MUGGER III’s top drawer — I have no idea how they got there — and I guess if I wanted to sell the whole lot I could make a bundle. But just like my eight boxes of baseball cards that span from 1948 to 1967, undoubtedly 50 or more in mint condition that would fetch maybe $100, it’s more important to pass on the booty to my sons, who, I hope, will show them off to their own children in the middle of the next century, when presumably I’m on my last legs or have already joined my parents in the Great Beyond.

JWR contributor "Mugger" is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1998, Russ Smith