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Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art

Library of Congress with Preface from Brooke Gladstone

(Quirk Books; US: May 2012)

In the familiar texts of American history, events are arranged chronologically, to provide organization and to clearly identify successive narratives of notable events. In those narratives, of course, American Presidents are placed within the context of those dates. Grounded in the realities of their time, the ideas and accomplishments of a President, to future readers, can often be polarizing, as depicted here. 


In placing visual images of Presidents in proper context, nuances of visual language, the written word, satire, and their aggregate result tells an important narrative itself. As much as wars and legislation can be part of the profile an American President, the images from his campaign reveal not only the times, but the individual captured in those times. The campaign poster speaks to a large truth that the ability to provide an effective image of a candidate during the campaign can be equally important, if not more so, than the actual political stances of said candidate.


While Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art combines several political histories in one collection of images of campaign posters from 1828 to 2008. Artistically, the book provides an evolution in the use of caricature and text.  This evolution shows a movement from combining cartoon-like imagery with the text of big ideas of virtue to modern day posters that combine few images and simpler phrasing. 


Evidence of effective but a somewhat crude depiction of a Presidential candidate can be seen in the “Farmer Garfield” image from the 1880 Presidential election. In this illustration, a strong, eventual President, James Garfield, is clearing a field that is in front of the White House.  The tool of choice for this task is a long blade that reads “HONESTY, ABILITY AND PATRIOTISM.” In the foreground, while clearing the brush, Garfield is stepping on two serpents.  he body of one serpent reads “CALUMNY” while the body of the other serpent reads “FALSEHOOD” in an obvious attempt to illustrate Garfield as a candidate of virtue.  As he steps on these serpents, words before his path read “HATRED” and “DEFAMATION” in an effort to show how he will clear his path to White House.  With sleeves rolled, and a facial expression of determination, Garfield is depicted as man of morality who isn’t afraid of challenges. 


A more controversial illustration from the 1848 election features a drawing of Zachary Taylor in full military regalia, sitting atop a pyramid of skulls. This image is a reference to his experience in the Mexican War. Here lies a reminder of the relevance of military experience in Presidential elections past.  It’s also a reminder of how much has changed in the projection of war and death in public images. Such an image today would be problematic, to say the least.


To a lesser degree, Presidential Campaign Posters provides a visual evolution of photography.  While implied, more written acknowledgement of this technological shift would have been useful, along with commentary discussing the impact of graphic design in post WWII campaign posters.  Evidence of the combination of graphic design, popular culture and political messaging is best portrayed in a particular poster of Ronald Reagan in his campaign for a second term. Reagan’s re-election campaign featured a photograph of actor Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, with President Reagan’s head superimposed in place of Stallone’s. In place of the movie title Rambo is the word “RONBO”, thus re-making the charismatic, old Hollywood politician, into a new role-political action hero.


From the early posters that depict some candidates as animals to the more recent RONBO, humor is used to please—or antagonize—a particular political base. With an implied halo, long hair, long beard, and dressed in white, Jimmy Carter is depicted as Jesus in a poster with the headline that reads “J.C. CAN SAVE AMERICA!” The born-again Christian candidate is painted as this Christ-like figure at a time when economic crisis and the political corruption of former President Richard Nixon are still on the minds of many American voters. 


By 1976, the use of candidates’ likenesses in campaign posters contained a fairly straight forward approach as text began to provide more of the messaging.  The Library of Congress, sticking to its 1-2 page format per election, neglected to even mention this poster of Carter as “J.C.”, let alone talk about its significance.  There were other J.C CAN SAVE AMERICA! posters.  But depicting a candidate as a stand-in for Warner Sallman’s The Head of Christ warranted much more than just the short caption seen here, especially given the more recent discussions of Presidential candidates and their religious beliefs.


Moving into the 21st century, the book notes the recent role of independent organizations and websites’ use of political humor. GOPshoppe.com became popular amongst some supporters of President George W. Bush, with its playful manipulation of the 2000 Al Gore/Joe Lieberman poster.  In place of the candidates’ names is “Sore Loserman.”  tear replaces the star on the original campaign poster. 


Missing here is commentary on the new notion of post-election campaign posters, and their role in the visual messaging arena. The book ends with the 2008 election, which features the iconic Barack Obama poster created by street artist Shepard Fairey. The now famous image and its creator were elevated to new levels of notoriety during this campaign.  Presidential Campaign Posters provides no commentary on the controversy surrounding the creation of this poster, the original photographer, or the unprecedented commercial success of the image.


The Library of Congress has provided an impressive and substantial collection of American images that chronicle time-honored traditions, while giving brief stories of each election and Presidential candidate.  Ironically, for a book that focuses on the visual, I longed for more text. I would have liked elaboration on the visual ideas they represent and the political impetus of their creation. Perhaps that’s saved for the history books.

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