CHARLOTTE, N.C. The conventioneers streaming out of Charlotte this weekend may dream they’ll go home and make history. Harry Rubenstein and Larry Bird want to take history – to the Smithsonian Institution.
The two have prowled the convention sites all week seeking posters, campaign buttons, wacky homemade clothing – anything they think illustrates how delegates, politicians and protestors expressed themselves at DNC 2012. The haul will end up at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. Rubenstein and Bird are chair and curator, respectively, of the museum’s division of political history.
“The politicians are looking at this as an election event,” Rubenstein says. “We’re looking at this as a long-term part of our political tradition.”
The memorabilia from the DNC will join a collection that reaches back “to the start of political life in our country,” Bird says. The wooden desk at which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence is there. So are buttons – brass buttons, made to be sewn to garments – that celebrated George Washington’s inauguration.
Collecting mass-produced items – like the “Obama, y’all” T-shirt – is as easy as giving money to a vendor. But Rubenstein and Bird have to rely on powers of persuasion when they want delegates to part with their homemade expressions of political fervor.
At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the Smithsonian duo admired the Montana delegation’s denim vests, emblazoned with a drawing of an elephant stomping a donkey. Another eye-catcher: The big, multicolored ribbons that members of the Washington state delegation wore on their chests.
“It was a real throwback to the late 19th century,” Bird said. “You could tell that the person who made it knew something (about election history).”
Delegates don’t usually give up the likes of those on the spot. Instead, Rubenstein and Bird make a pitch for a donation and leave a business card, hoping to receive a package someday in Washington. When a delegate has fond memories of visiting the Smithsonian, that improves their chances.
“We tell them, it’s their gift,” Rubenstein says. “That’s the most wonderful way we relate to people.”
As faithful convention guests every election year since the 1980s, Rubenstein and Bird have a longer perspective on them than many delegates, politicians and reporters. Seated in the upper bowl at Time Warner Cable Arena as the delegates gather, Rubenstein looks out over the scene of the nation’s biggest pep rally.
“You know, this thing is absurd,” Rubenstein says, laughing. “People come here and they’re dressed in crazy costumes. They’re here to celebrate.”
That’s the point, he thinks. Even though conventions no longer need three or four days to transact their business, he thinks shrinking them would be a mistake.
“These things serve an important function for the delegates to interact among themselves, allow their enthusiasm to grow, and to mingle with people from across the country,” Rubenstein says. “I think these large, multi-day events ... are healthy for the enduring aspect of people becoming engaged in an important part of our nation.”