From “Change” to politics as usual, ’tis (almost) the season to be either inspired or constantly annoyed. A new Library of Congress publication put out by Philly’s Quirk Books provides evidence from the 1800s to Obama of how would-be presidents have to balance recalling the good old days with shooting for progress. But Presidential Campaign Posters (March 20), a large-format book with 100 pages meant to be pulled out and hung up, focuses on graphic design rather than proposed policy.
The selections come from the Library of Congress archives, each with analysis of the images and campaigns from library staff, including Library of Congress publishing director W. Ralph Eubanks. So how does a candidate win, at least at the poster game?
Our national colors, the flag, bald eagles, Lady Liberty: This, in the world of visuals, is America, and it’s not news that candidates are posed next these images as frequently as possible. In one poster, the iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam (who originally pointed from a 1917 WWI Army recruitment poster) is juxtaposed with a painting of F.D.R. in a similar style, saying He Wants “You, F.D.R.” to “Stay and Finish the Job!”
In earlier years, when people recognized the faces of the Founding Fathers beyond the ones on currency, it was common to encircle a candidate’s image with small portraits of presidents past. The “circle of presidents” tactic paid off for Rutherford B. Hayes (maybe it was the extra eagle thrown onto his poster). But it can backfire: Lewis Cass, a failed contender, tried this approach, but according to Eubanks, “it ended up being parodied — made a mockery of.” A poster for Cass’ opponent Zachary Taylor helped spread the jeers by including a multi-verse song (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) in small type at the bottom: “So gassy Cass, why must you pass / You shifting, sly pretender … .”
Invoking the past is important, says Eubanks, but so is the present cultural mood. “Street art, pop culture — these things infuse the campaign, whether the campaign wants to admit it or not.” Electioneering of the past half-century is rich with posters trying to piggyback on the zeitgeist; in the ’60s, psychedelic images aren’t just employed in support of Eugene McCarthy and the Kennedys — in one bizarre example, Nixon is drawn up in a groovy color scheme straight out of Jefferson Airplane.
But nothing says “presidential poster” like a really, really big head. According to Eubanks, the big head is a good bet in most situations. Elements of a successful campaign poster, he says, often include “an idealized image of the candidate, a good slogan that’s short and easy to remember and something that’s bold, graphically.”
Obama obviously had this idea down flat in 2008, but William Howard Taft was on it a whole century earlier. One poster (pictured) from Taft’s 1908 campaign that feels particularly modern in its minimalism is by illustrator John de Yongh (shown, above). The space is dominated by Taft’s smiling, mustachioed, multi-chinned, disembodied head, with the single word “BILL” written under it. Take that, Shepard Fairey.