The most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter's imagination. They are like Japanese manga: the less detailed the image, the more easily we can identify with the candidate, the more space for projecting our dreams. The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of "otherness" which translates into death at the polls.
What perhaps is striking about this collection of posters from the Library of Congress--our oldest federal cultural institution and one that serves as the nation's memory--is what it reveals about the unchanging nature of American politicking. The Library of Congress houses, in its Prints and Photographs Division, one of the most comprehensive poster collections in the world. The collection, international in scope, numbers over 100,000 posters addressing a vast range of subjects, including an extensive collection related to American political campaigns.
In these posters, we see the same posturing, the same accusations (of corruption, of moral turpitude) and insinuations (of suspicious religious beliefs, of hidden affiliations) hurled across party lines through the centuries. We see in black and white and color that the incivility that modern Americans decry as symptomatic of a sick political system has, in fact, always been with us.
Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment. Every generation renews the battle and fights it again. And every time, political candidates borrow from past campaigns the lexicon of perpetual political war. Fortunately, the Library of Congress has preserved all of these examples for future generations to see, both in their online collections and in the pages of Presidential Campaign Posters. The posters and catchphrases in this collection are like little skiffs navigating the currents of America's turbulent political waters.
Brooke Gladstone wrote the introduction to Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art [Quirk Publishing, $40.00] by The Library of Congress.
In the early nineteenth century, many Americans still remembered firsthand the oppression of royal rule. That's why in this poster presidential candidate Henry Clay set out to paint the incumbent Andrew Jackson as a tyrant prone to letting his strong will run roughshod over the U.S. Constitution. Clay was certain that the image of a crowned, scepter-bearing Jackson standing in front of a throne would be like a bucket of cold water to voters. Instead, Jackson defeated Clay by a huge margin: Jackson won 219 electoral votes to Clay's 49 electoral votes.
The Democrats promoted Lewis Cass as a distinguished politician with an extensive resume of public service, producing a campaign poster in which his portrait sat pompously at the center of a constellation of the eleven former presidents. Cartoonists thought less of Cass than he thought of himself, especially since his name provided serendipitous opportunities for wordplay featuring <em>ass</em> and <em>gas</em>.
Grover Cleveland's 1886 marriage to the twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom made her the youngest First Lady in history, and her popularity with the American people convinced advertisers that her likeness could sell almost anything. Consequently, that's what they tried to do, even seeking her endorsement for a variety of products. It's no wonder when posters were developed for the National Democratic Convention in Saint Louis that Frances Cleveland's image is displayed prominently alongside President Cleveland. It might also explain why the image of lady Liberty, with her hand resting approvingly on top of the portrait of Cleveland, bears a striking resemblance to the First Lady.
By the time of the 1896 election, the economy had replaced the lingering effects of the Civil War as the country's most pressing issue. As seen in this poster, Republican William McKinley stood for the gold standard, in which the currency in circulation would be linked to the country's available gold. McKinley's election marked a victory for capitalism and a strong currency, and the resulting effect on world markets manifested itself throughout the next century.
Although William Howard Taft had hoped to run a sedate, front porch campaign against William Jennings Bryant and Eugene V. Debs, he went ahead and embarked upon the campaign trail, marking the first time that nominees from the major political parties participated in simultaneous speaking tours. Taft's personality shows through in his "Good Times" campaign poster, equal parts Solomonic gravitas and gentle-hearted humor.
In 1944, after Franklin D. Roosevelt had spent eleven years in the White House, the president's health was waning, and doubt arose whether he would run for re-election. But with America three years into World War II, the president felt he had no choice but to remain at his post. Groups of voters felt the same, as evidenced by the poster from the "Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Science for Roosevelt."
Robert F. Kennedy made a late and controversial entrance into the Democratic race in March 1968, only four days after Eugene McCarthy nearly upset President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Although Johnson and Kennedy had a testy relationship, Kennedy had not wanted to oppose the president. But when McCarthy's strong showing demonstrated that the party was not united behind Johnson, Kennedy made his move. Kennedy was embraced by young voters, as evidenced by the psychedelic campaign poster.
In spite of a challenge from Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford kept his cool--and was depicted as the leather-jacketed greaser Fonzie, the arbiter of cool, from the hit television show Happy Days--even as his challenger pestered him at the Republican convention in Kansas City.
Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey captured Illinois senator Barack Obama's thoughtful determination in the <em>Hope</em> poster he designed in January 2008, while the future president was still running in the primaries. The poster--which originally read <em>Progress</em> before the Obama campaign contacted the artist and asked for the revision--soon became a cultural icon.