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Political art: 'Presidential Campaign Posters' has election fever

The book pulls from the Library of Congress to show visual politicking dating to the 1828 Andrew Jackson-John Quincy Adams rematch.

May 25, 2012|By Liesl Bradner, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Abraham Lincoln's name gets shortened to fit this 1860 banner.
Abraham Lincoln's name gets shortened to fit this 1860 banner. (Library of Congress, Quirk…)

Before the era of the 24-hour news cycle and weekly televised debates, the predominant and most creative outlet for presidential candidates to communicate their vision was the campaign poster.

With "Presidential Campaign Posters" (Quirk Books), the Library of Congress takes a look back at two centuries of memorable election art.

The book begins with the 1828 Andrew Jackson / John Quincy Adams race, spanning through 2008's Barack Obama / John McCain battle — including Shepard Fairey's memorable Obama "Hope" poster — and covering every campaign in between.

"We began in 1828 because it was the first election you didn't have to own property to vote," noted W. Ralph Eubanks, publishing director at the Library of Congress. "We felt that was the beginning of modern presidential campaigns."

While the names and faces may have changed and artistic styles evolved, the nature of American politicking, issues and mudslinging have remained constant throughout our country's history. Often the attacks were personal and vicious. Jackson's opponents painted him as a murdering military general in a poster filled with caskets and accounts of his bloody deeds, while Adams represented establishment and ties to the founding fathers.

"The most common slogan has been a variation of 'Bring America Back' or 'Push it Forward,'" said Eubanks. He noted that a recurring theme is the candidate as the common man — James Garfield as a farmer, Ulysses S. Grantas a tanner, and Bobby Kennedy's Alfred E. Neuman look-alike psychedelic poster from 1968.

Political cartoons and parody posters can be a way to connect to popular culture. Among the top candidates in that genre: Ronald Reagan reimagined as "Ronbo," Jimmy Carter as Jesus Christ ("J.C. Can Save America"), and Gerald Ford dressed up as Fonzie with the tag line "Fordzie: Happy Days are Here Again".

In addition to the 100 pullout posters, there are related materials that give readers what Eubanks calls "a sense of the temper of the times." For Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential run, a copy of his gold button and the "Grand Wizards for Goldwater" photo are featured along with the poster.

Mixed in with the comedic lampooning is an homage to masterpieces such as Delacroix's 1830 "Liberty Leading the People." And posters designed by respected artists such as Ben Shahn's 1968 Eugene McCarthy Peace poster and James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam in "I Want You F.D.R" in 1944.

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