How The White House Was Won

Two exhibits show how current campaign tricks are old hat

Somewhere along the way it became a thing for just about everyone to engage in political discourse. There was that link you posted, certain with every fiber of your being it was going to end the discussion once and for all, then rolled your eyes when someone had the nerve to disagree. Of course, the bluster on your Facebook feed pales in comparison to the bombast and chicanery of the actual campaign. But neither you nor those currently running for office invented the practice; it has been around since the days of the Founding Fathers.

However, it was when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon first debated on television in 1960 when the modern incarnation of bickering as a bipartisan sport took on a life of its own. The political culture of 2016 is inextricably linked to that night. Whether you fancy yourself a history fanatic or are just caught up in the frenzy, there are two current New York City area museum exhibits at which you will definitively and tangibly see the direct connections between campaigns of the past and the chaotic climate of today.

Campaigning for the Presidency, 1960-1972


The stately New York Historical Society Museum & Library (170 Central Park West) is showing slogans and swag used in the campaigns over the 12-year period beginning with that debate. The very same grandstanding, smearing and scaring you know and love are on display in the form of caricatures, license plates, candidate action figures, board games and more. Much of the material focuses on Nixon, who was a central component of those years, including branded cigarettes, a toilet seat cover and Native American headgear, but a variety of authentic relics from each of the candidates is also being shown.

Even if you are unfamiliar with those other names, the parallels alone will leave you fascinated. And just may give you some clarity about what goes on now. From Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 platform of “The Stakes Are Too High for You to Stay at Home” to George McGovern in 1972 running on “Make America Happen Again”, you will see history come to life and realize how the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same.

Winning the White House: From Press Prints to Selfies

erwitt_nyc98920In his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury presciently foreshadowed the political reality of image over issue. While discussing the most recent election, one character proudly voted for whom she thought was “one of the nicest looking men who ever became President,” and scoffed at the opponent who “didn’t shave too close or comb his hair very well”. This was written seven years before John F. Kennedy famously rode the wave of appearance.

crowley_bush-dinerThe International Center of Photography (888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ) has a beautifully curated array of stirring photos showing how Presidential candidates have utilized photography to connect with the voting populace. Photos and other material from various campaigns is expertly categorized by the technology of the day as much as the time frame. Included are groupings from the eras of clunky motion picture cameras, the rise of cable news, the advent of social media, and the transformation of the President into a pop culture icon.

Perfectly chosen quotations complement the selections and pack a hefty gut punch with how profoundly true they ring. Nixon’s speechwriter asserting people would respond to what was projected rather than what was said. Hillary Clinton acknowledging people were waiting in line for selfies, not to converse or question.

From Bobby Kennedy wooing the crowd to candidates in makeup before going on air, from George W. Bush behind a diner counter to the wave of smartphones at the Obama inauguration, from the imitation of magazine covers past to a shot of cameramen filming a Ted Cruz campaign event while scrolling through their phone, the offerings at this hip, smart exhibit will leave you mesmerized by how far things have come yet how little they have traveled.markpeterson_i3c3419