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Pinning Down the Candidates

The Collecting of Campaign Buttons Has Become "America's Last Great Treasure Hunt"
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 6)

Today, the national party organizations practically ignore buttons, spending only "pennies" on them, says Mort Berkowitz, 57, owner of Bold Concepts, a special events company in New York that handles Earth Day celebrations and large and small local festivals--and supplies buttons to political campaigns.

"Politics has become very local, so local headquarters buy buttons," Berkowitz says. "They then sell them as fund-raisers. These are political clubs that every weekend have tables outside, loaded with buttons. It used to be, as a kid, I could go into a headquarters and walk off with buttons. Now you have to buy them."

The economics of button making and selling are "a much higher proportion" of a local campaign organization's budget, Berkowitz says. "I'm talking about in a city like New York, where there are [at least] 20 to 30 different Democratic clubs that are really pushing and promoting the Clinton-Gore ticket. They're not spending money on advertising, right? Their money goes for literature, postage. And how do they fund that? They fund that by the sale of buttons and bumper stickers."

Tales abound of recent threadbare presidential campaign operations that received crucial support through button sales. The Wisconsin coordinator for former Sen. Gary Hart's ill-fated and underfinanced 1984 presidential bid sold Hart buttons to collectors in the United States, Canada and England to supplement his meager salary from campaign headquarters. In 1991, supporters of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerry used the proceeds from the sale of $3 "Run Bob Run" buttons to convince him to seek the 1992 presidential nomination. During the preliminary skirmishes of that campaign, the organizations backing Bill Clinton and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin sold their buttons directly to the public for $2 apiece, while former California Gov. Jerry Brown requested donations in return for his buttons.

Although up to 30 companies nationwide are in the political button business, "there are no button companies that can survive [solely from] their political button sales," says Berkowitz. "There used to be a half-dozen button companies in New York. They're down to one"--the venerable N.G. Slater Co. "Rents are too high. It's tough to collect from political officials. I mean, if they lose, and you had not collected in advance--good-bye."

Button designers and manufacturers today turn out an immense variety of designs and slogans, Berkowitz says, but "the beautiful, turn-of-the-century [style] buttons, none of these guys can do anymore. Those brilliant golds, almost like gold lamé, of the turn of the century on [such items as] Teddy Roosevelts and's all unfortunately a thing of the past."

Still thriving in the button business, however, is entrepreneurial enterprise. Berkowitz recalled attending the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans and briefly flattening the competition after George Bush surprised everyone by picking Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate.

"The next day we had a company down there turning out buttons--but turning them out one-by-one, because, you know, they didn't have high-powered machinery," Berkowitz says with a chuckle. "But they were knocking them out. So for a couple of days, theirs were the only--the only--Quayle buttons to be found."

Some political temperature takers still view buttons as a barometer of a candidate's possible fortunes. In July 1991, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette used Berkowitz's sellout of his first run of 1,000 Bill Clinton buttons as an indication that Clinton was "leading the pack of potential Democratic presidential candidates." The paper then kept a running tab on the sale of Clinton buttons at Political Americana, a store in Washington, D.C., that markets political memorabilia. And The Washington Post reported last March that Political Americana's informal button sales poll had Bob Dole leading his competitors with a 28 percent tally, followed by Patrick Buchanan with 21 percent, Steve Forbes with 15 percent and Lamar Alexander with a scant 10 percent.

What continues to astonish veteran campaign button collectors, however, is the soaring prices for Bill Clinton items, both of the presidential and pre-presidential varieties. A "Clinton for Congress" button sold for $139 in June 1993 and then hit $250 the following November; a rare button proclaiming "I'm an Arkansas Traveler for President Bill Clinton, October 3, 1991-November 3, 1992," estimated to be worth $250, sold for a whopping $770 in November 1993; a "Letter Carriers for Clinton/Gore," estimated at $15, fetched $215 in May 1995.

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