Notwithstanding the copious amount of words I am capable of employing to write about or verbally describe things, I have always been a visually-oriented person at heart, engaging in drawing perhaps even more compulsively than writing or talking; thus, when I visit Book Expo America I am often most drawn to books rich with illustrations of all kinds. Given the goodly number of publishing houses at BEA which specialize in such work, this is could be considered a feast of sorts for the wealth of titles on array, or a vexing circumstance due to the fact that there’s only a few days to take stock of the wide assortment on hand. You can only do your best, and this typically results in discovering some fascinating books (while yet wondering about those you may have missed).
Amidst publishers in that space, one that caught my attention was the aptly named Quirk Books [www.quirkbooks.com] out of Philadelphia. Their credo is “seekers of all things awesome; publishers of all things awesome,” and the range of subjects they cover in the realm of quirky awesomeness is impressive. Their success with the mash-up “Pride And Prejudice And Zombies” has beget a genre of like titles, with “Lovecraft Middle School: Professor Gargoyle” being highlighted this year. Other Quirk titles showcasing a blend of literary and pop culture sensibilities include “Christopher Walken A To Z,” “Night Of The Living Trekkies,” and a book dedicated to the original Starship Commander, “The Encyclopedia Shatnerica: An A To Z Guide To The Man And His Universe.” They also publish on topics equally risqué as flip, such as “Dirty Jokes Every Man Should Know,” “The Quotable Douchebag,” and “Hip Snips: Your Complete Guide To Dazzing Pubic Hair.”
Since I have been at work for some time on an illustrated take on American political history, I was particularly drawn to Quirk titles involving historical and political themes, of which there’s a good selection. Among these there is “Secret Lives Of The US Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You About The Men Of The White House,” “Secret Lives Of The Civil War: What Your Teachers Never Told You About The War Between The States,” and “Anything For A Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, And October Surprises In US Presidential Campaigns.” Yet not all that’s revelatory about American political history involves digging up hidden or obscure aspects of campaigns past – sometimes you need only collect and assemble the artifacts of the very public and well-distributed means of how the candidates have been presented by their own partisans.
This is the case with “Presidential Campaign Posters From The Library of Congress,” a succession of chronological images which evinces not only the timelessness of hucksterism inherent in how our nation selects its Chief Executive, but also provides a window as to how media and communication itself has changed over the last 200 years. With a preface by Brooke Gladstone, cohost of NPR’s ‘On The Media’, the oversize item includes 100 ready-to-frame posters assorted full-size on the recto pages, with the verso pages containing text descriptions of the sequential campaigns along with smaller pertinent images, including posters, photographs, illustrations and other related visual ephemera. (There are tiny perforations allowing for the pages to be removed and framed should one wish, but I feel the collection stands better by leaving it as is, due to the continuity it reflects.)
The time period covered ranges from 1828 to 2008, and with Presidential campaigns having been conducted in the US primarily on television for the last 50 years, the thing that becomes abundantly apparent is the range of artistry that has been lost in our contemporary period in the tradition of delivering political messages, no matter how propagandistic. This is especially true over the last 30-odd years; as the battle lines between red and blue have been progressively sharply drawn over our continent, graphic political imagery has tended to be more about simplicity and repetition of brand identities – functioning as much to remind the faithful from one side or the other to get out and vote as proclaiming the moral affiliation of whomever’s lawn such signage might appear upon – than containing the kind of associative narrative cues that were often linked to pictures of the candidates’ faces in posters of earlier eras. When mass communication was achieved solely through the technology of printing, and the content might thus be ‘read’ as people read newspapers or books, the focus of such promotional items was often to tell a story in a brief visual shorthand, as a means of familiarizing the electorate with the candidate, whereas in our own video era graphics tend merely to be a wallpapering adjunct supporting the already well-defined narratives about the presidential aspirants established via television (and now the internet) – media that is itself as omnipresent in peoples’ lives as the built environment any posters might be displayed in.
The last two posters in the book are good examples of this modern pared-down aesthetic. The only non-textual item on the John McCain poster from 2008 is a faux-relief 5-pointed star centered within a tapered bar, which subtly symbolizes McCain’s status as a military veteran to the viewer. The example from the Obama ’08 campaign is the by now very familiar Shepard Fairey graphic treatment of a photographic image of him looking upward, with the only word appearing being “HOPE” below the candidate’s face. The two contrasting advertisements each support in as minimal a manner as possible the messages and identities of the opponents already well-understood by most observers – the 72-year old McCain’s face is nowhere to be seen, but his long service to his nation is alluded to, while the historic nature of the Obama candidacy meant it was essential his face be included in materials, at the same time any text (aside from the aptly aspirational mantras of “hope” and “change”) was nearly superfluous.
As much as people decry negative campaigning, the collection of posters reminds us that it has always been a staple of American political discourse, with the GOP post-election ‘Sore Loserman’ parody of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman logo being only the most recent example of the form featured. Starting with the first election year surveyed, we see an 1828 woodcut with letterpress handbill excoriating the candidacy of Andrew Jackson, outlining his “Bloody Deeds” regarding the “SIX MILITIA MEN, arrested, tried, and put to death under the orders of General Andrew Jackson,” with images of six coffins printed alongside to drive the point home; by 1832, with Jackson having won the presidency four years prior from incumbent John Quincy Adams, a wizened Jackson is depicted as a be-robed American monarch “King Andrew the First” in a print commissioned by his opponent Henry Clay. Both of these early efforts at negative campaigning failed to prevent the popular ‘man-of-the-people’ Jackson from winning each election, but this had no inhibitory effect on usage of such strategy going forward, as evidenced by the Whigs’ 1848 characterization of Democrat Lewis Cass as “General Gass”; or an 1852 print intimating the rumored alcoholism in the “social qualities” of Franklin Pierce; and the 1856 “true likeness of ‘ten cent Jimmy’ Buchanan, the ‘Damned-Black-Rat’s’ candidate for President,” in which James Buchanan is depicted literally as a donkey.
With vitriol often fueling warring political parties and factions against one another, an alternative stance of being an ‘above-the-fray’ peacemaker has also often been adopted by candidates seeking to embody ‘presidential’ qualities. In Millard Fillmore’s 1856 quest to regain the presidency as the candidate of the American Party, his status that year as an outsider representing an insurgent party is counteracted by having his illustrated figure standing taller than the respective Republican and Democrat foes John Fremont and James Buchanan, as he holds them apart while they brandish weaponry towards one another; betwixt the two quarreling principals he is labeled “the Right man for the Right Place.” Similarly mediating between the intractable Union and Confederate presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – as they’re in the process of ripping a map of the entire US apart – the 1864 Democrat challenger General George McClellan (who’d been relieved of command by Lincoln in 1862) scolds both that “the Union must be preserved at all hazards.”
Presenting a candidate as presidential before the fact was a common visual trope of lithographic campaign items throughout the 1800s, particularly in posters produced by H. H. Lloyd & Co. The standard design would have images of the candidate, often paired with his Vice-Presidential running mate, situated in the center of the picture, with engravings of all the previous presidents surrounding them in an assembly around the outside margin of the design – the intent being to portray an executive stature by association. As aforementioned, the printed word, with or without accompanying illustrations, was the state-of-the-art mass media of the day, so these also frequently contained lengthy blocks of text, usually delineating the party platform and statements by the candidates, as in the 1868 poster for ticket of Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax, or in the 1876 litho promoting Rutherford Hayes and William Wheeler. Some such designs even hedged their bets, as shown in the example from 1864 including both the Republican slate of Abraham Lincoln & Andrew Johnson and the Democrats George McClellan & George Pendleton (this also features below the faces a map depicting contemporary Civil War realities, with “Loyal States in GREEN, what the Rebels still hold in RED, and what the Union Soldiers have wrested from them in YELLOW”). Of course, such hopeful associative pictorial determinism was not always prescient, as evidenced by the 1848 poster featuring the grimacing countenance of Lewis Cass as a potential 12th president, surrounded by images of the 11 men to hold the highest office in the land up until that time (could it have been the scowl, or the absence of a party platform that failed to persuade voters of Cass’s fitness for office?).
This style of poster customarily would have other uplifting visual elements in the margins, such as flags and/or bunting, banners, bald eagles, wreaths, shields and the like, and often enrobed female figures bearing some of these symbolic items would make an appearance; so too drawings of battle scenes or agricultural production. By the late 1800s posters featuring both presidential and vice-presidential nominees of a given party retained these heraldic elements but had lost the pantheon of presidents past – perhaps because by that time the expanding aggregate number of them would create too busy an overall design. And while the earlier 19th Century posters were typically ornately detailed lithographs (many here by Currier & Ives), as the turn of the Century approached the emergence of multi-color printing and the mainstreaming of photographic technology meant that promotional items had to utilize more striking imagery to differentiate themselves in an increasingly visually-rich culture. In 1880 we see James A. Garfield wielding a scythe bearing the words “honesty, ability and patriotism” as he cuts down snakes in the grass representing “calumny,” “falsehood,” “hatred,” and the like; in 1888 Benjamin Harrison is riding on the back of a soaring eagle; in 1992 William McKinley stands atop an oversize gold coin borne by 10 men (notably of different social classes, in a subtle rebuke to the critique of him as the rich man’s choice); and in 1900 a robed maiden bears a hatchet called “Democracy” against an octopus labeled “Trusts” in a poster promoting McKinley’s two-time opponent William Jennings Bryan. Realism had slowly begun to give way to hyperbole; meanwhile, symbolic visual ephemera of both a satiric and non-partisan nature, a lot of it from ‘Puck’ magazine, are included to provide greater context to the larger partisan poster images.
With the advance of technological breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century – most importantly in sound recordings and motion pictures – the function of campaign posters fundamentally changed beginning in this period. Since voters everywhere across the country could see the candidates in newsreels, the need to distinguish the campaigns via vivid illustrated pictorial narratives, even of the latter-day overblown sort, became surpassed – the simulated reality of movies had trumped illustrated hyperbole. Increasingly the posters for major-party campaigns would simply feature the face of the candidate, along with his signature – the equivalent of verbally stating “…. and I paid for this message” – as well as brief key slogans they wished to hammer home. The only text in 1908 for William Howard Taft is a tag he wears reading “Good Times”; in 1912 for Woodrow Wilson it is his quote “I am willing, no matter what my personal fortunes may be, to play for the verdict of mankind”; in 1928 Al Smith is simply “Honest, Able, Fearless”; and that Franklin D. Roosevelt is “A Gallant Leader” is all you needed to know per a 1936 poster. Some posters had no text at all, simply featuring a serious-looking picture of the by-then well-recognizable candidate’s face, as with Charles Hughes in 1916 and Warren G. Harding in 1920.
Songs and poems extolling the virtues of candidates (or, of course, mocking their opponents) go back to the 1800s, but with the advent of recordings that could be commercially distributed, this realm became extensively developed in the first half of the 20th Century. (Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have his voice recorded, but the primitive fledgling audio technology of wax cylinder recordings did not allow for any sort of wide dissemination.) At that time, sales of sheet music nonetheless constituted a considerable share of music industry profits, thus the book contains posters and adjunct printed sheet music for such ditties as “Get On The Raft With Taft” in 1908; “Wilson Has A Winnin’ Way” and “Prosperity And Hughes” in 1916; “Harding – You’re The Man For Us” (with words and music by Al Jolson) in 1920; and the unjustly forgotten songs “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo-Hoo-Hoover” and “Good-Bye Cal, Hello Al!” from 1928.
Yet even as major-party candidates had the benefit of increasing exposure – and hence, promotional opportunities – in an expanding media environment, third party candidates, who generally have been at a disadvantage with regards to resources and prominence, have tended to maintain the earlier tradition of more ornate, narrative and allusive printed campaign materials. In 1904 Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs is framed amidst a bare-chested blacksmith, a miner with a pick-axe, a speeding locomotive, farmers gathering hay and scenes from a printers foundry; the 1936 poster for Socialist Norman Thomas features a mother in the snow with her four children (alluding to a recent event wherein striking workers had been evicted from their homes); and an absurdly detailed illustration of an owl in a tree (the theme being ecological issues) features in the poster for the 1980 Citizens Party campaign of Barry Commoner. Some insurgent candidates produced materials of a slicker nature – witness the very seriously-expressioned Dick Gregory during his write-in campaign in 1968, or Communist Party candidate Gus Hall’s 1976 poster featuring Angela Davis – and at least one was very-much tongue-in-cheek (comedian Pat Paulson’s satiric campaign of 1968 has his face mounted where the head of an eagle would be), but the most credible and best-funded third-party campaign, that of Ross Perot in 1992, has, unsurprisingly, a poster that’s the most corporate looking, and not coincidentally most resembles those produced by the two main parties in its era.
Latter day major party campaigns occasionally have harkened back to the standard face-within-a-panoply imaging customary during the 1800s, including utilizing illustrations rather than photos of the candidate and other elements, and these tend to have almost a retro feel. There is a Richard Nixon poster from 1968 that may as well be his own ‘Sgt. Pepper’ cover, with the grinning Californian oversize among a cadre of notable GOP pols and supporters, among them Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, Ronald Reagan (all of whom he bested for the nomination), Ed Brooke, Gerald Ford, Everett Dirksen, Charles Percy, John Lindsay, Barry Goldwater, Spiro Agnew, Bart Starr, Clint Eastwood and Wilt Chamberlain (somehow, the illustrator forgot Elvis). Four years later there are two posters from Nixon’s re-election campaign that follow in this style, one with photos from his first term (teaming him with Brezhnev, Chou-en-Lai, etc.), and another hailing his accomplishments but without the celebrity quotient. Fully illustrated posters for Jimmy Carter (“A New Vision For America”) in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 (“Bringing America Back”) are similar in fashioning simplistic narratives, and the retro value, as with the Nixon posters, seems quite intentional – ‘Happy Days Are Here Again (Or They Can Be)’ the message seems to be, a throwback sentiment indeed in an increasingly media-saturated US of A.