Stalking '96 Memorabilia With Harry and Larry

They're not journalists, delegates, or politicians. They might not even be Democrats, they won't say. But in some ways, Harry Rubenstein and Larry Byrd are two of the most important people at the Chicago convention.

As curators for a Smithsonian Institution exhibit called "We The People," they collect signs, buttons, pins, and funny hats - anything that reflects the flavor of the 1996 campaign.

At a time when convention planners are placing more emphasis on images for TV, it's the duo's job to make sure that long after the confetti is swept away, Americans will have a physical record of the things Chicago's delegates carried.

"It's a tradition that goes back to the founding of the early Republic," Mr. Byrd says of America's fascination with political memorabilia. "It starts before George Washington and it goes all the way up to the present moment."

"What we try to do is determine the tone of this convention and what objects best represent that tone," Mr. Rubenstein adds. "And that's what we climb over chairs to get."

The Smithsonian duo, known affectionately as Harry and Larry, has scoured the floors of the last four national conventions collecting mementos that they stuff into two giant black portfolio bags. They carry cameras, too, to capture the context.

Staking their claim

For the most part, delegates are happy to contribute.

Harry and Larry bring stacks of business cards to pass out to those who donate items, and they encourage donors to call them if they're ever in Washington. But it's not always easy.

"For many delegates, this is the pinnacle of their political career, to attend a national convention," Byrd says. "When you talk to them, they're so glassy-eyed that it's hard to collect at that moment. If we leave them a card, though, they inevitably send it to us later. That goes for the smallest pin and the most intricately constructed hat."

On the floor Tuesday night, Larry spotted a yellow button worn by a Maine delegate that features a bent arrow with a line through it. "It means 'No turning right,'" she explains.

Larry asks if he can have it, and she plucks it from her shirt immediately. He sticks it in his pocket, alongside a button from a Wisconsin delegate that reads: "Cheeseheads for Clinton."

At the Missouri delegation, Harry runs into some trouble. When he asks delegate Vicky Abernethy for a sign that says "Speaker Gephardt," she at first refuses, then asks how much he'll pay for it. After he explains the exhibit, though, she relents.

"It's something of a patriotic gesture to donate," Rubenstein contends.

In San Diego, some of the prizes the two collected were hard hats worn by supporters of Patrick Buchanan, Velcro dolls of President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton whose heads and limbs can be ripped off, and the five-foot Kansas standard, which they shipped back in a box designed for golf clubs.

But the most prized items from any convention, Harry and Larry say, are the elaborate and often outlandish hats that delegates construct. Often, they keep adding things to them so that by Thursday, their creators have to duck through doorways.

Mike Cefalo, a Pennsylvania delegate, showed off his brown-felt riverboat captain's hat with two three-foot donkey ears attached. A friend made it for him, he explains, and shipped it to the convention in a box.

"I can pick up CBS with this," Mr. Cefalo jokes.

In the hallway, T.E. Austin, a North Carolina delegate, shows off a towering chapeau that looks like a cross between Uncle Sam and Alice in Wonderland. It gets a lot of attention, Mr. Austin says, both positive and negative. "Some people ask me to move because it blocks their view," he says.

"Conventions have always had this element of spectacle, fun, and play," Byrd says. "It's a place people come to get energy, to become activated, to talk to each other."

Indeed, this seems to be the purpose of most mementos. Indiana delegate Melina Fox, who brought a sign with a pig on it, says fellow pork producers from all over have come to meet her.

At the 1992 Democratic convention in New York, the Clintons were so impressed with Kansas delegate Onita Hamblin's elaborate Statue of Liberty hat, that they invited her to dinner at the White House.

"That's what were looking for," Byrd says, "remnants of that earlier time before television when objects like these were the focus of political advertising."

Heading home

Before they leave Chicago, Harry and Larry will lay out the masses of paraphernalia they've collected and choose what to bring back. In Washington, they'll catalogue and document it all, and create a new display to open after the election.

"We try to capture the phenomenon and spectacle of every convention," Byrd says, "one object at a time."

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