At the 1960 Democratic National Convention, 16-year-old George Sullivan of Omaha sat behind the Kennedy family as JFK accepted the presidential nomination.
George was excited and intrigued by politics — his father was a convention delegate — and by the charismatic John F. Kennedy. But he also got interested in something else.
He gathered a number of them, and soon it became a hobby — a lifelong avocation. His collection numbers 3,500 colorful items, some dating to the 19th century.
“It's nonpartisan,” he said with a smile. “I'm interested in all of them — both sides of the aisle.”
But there's something else remarkable about the vast majority of the buttons. Most are for losers.
“I collect also-rans,” said Father Sullivan, 68, a Jesuit priest at Creighton Prep. “These are the orphans of collectibles.”
And so there they are in all their almost-presidential glory: Muskie, Stassen, Haig, Barkley, Cuomo, Symington, Dukakis, Chisholm, Mink, Miller, Kerry, Bryan, Willkie, Dewey, Stevenson, Goldwater, Humphrey, McGovern, Kemp, Perot and on and on.
Some of those names belong to politicos who enjoyed success at high levels. But they never made it to the highest office in the land, no matter how many buttons were handed out and pinned on.
Many of the names on the buttons are of people who didn't receive nominations at national conventions, but at least tested the waters. Sullivan said some had declared themselves as candidates, and others just thought about running.
Some were states' “favorite-son candidates” or even “stalking horses,” a term you never hear anymore. A stalking horse was a candidate who entered a state primary as a kind of test for a national candidate who, for whatever reason, didn't want to declare yet.
If you're trying to build a large button collection, specializing in losers is the way to go — because they far outnumber winners.
One button, which seemed appropriate for a priest, says “Another Nebraskan for Church.” (It actually referred to Frank Church, a senator from Idaho.)
“Sock it to 'em, Spiro!” reads another button, a reference to Spiro Agnew, a vice president who won but later “lost,” resigning over a past scandal.
“Let George Do it!” shouts another, touting 1968 also-ran George Romney, father of Mitt.
Sullivan doesn't especially like negative sentiments but — hey, this is politics.
“Let's Bury Barry,” says an anti-Goldwater button.
“No More Fireside Chats,” insists an anti-FDR button. Foes of Franklin Roosevelt also wore “No Royal Family” and “No Third Term-ites.”
A Ronald Reagan button, showing a light switch, preceded his election victory by 12 years: “The Switch is On to Ron.”
The collection includes winners, too, such as one from 1976 for Jimmy Carter of Georgia and running mate Walter Mondale of Minnesota: “Vote Grits and Fritz.”
One of the most famous, for war hero Dwight Eisenhower, is one of the simplest: “I Like Ike.”
The priest's collection includes some very old ones, such as a “pounded metal” coin of Grover Cleveland from 1884. The “pinback” buttons still in use today debuted in 1896, when William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska.
The collection includes William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, both of whom lost in a four-way race to Woodrow Wilson. Sullivan is still looking for a 1912 button for Eugene V. Debs, who finished last with 6 percent of the vote.
The priest has attended five Democratic and three Republican National Conventions, but also attends national conventions of American Political Items Collectors. This summer he went to Columbus, Ohio, spending two days inspecting the wares at 250 booths — and bought a Teddy Roosevelt button he had sought.
The national button conventions are held every other year, and prices rise every presidential election year. The Wall Street Journal estimated that $5 million exchanged hands at the Columbus meeting.
Though his own collection seems large, Sullivan said his is small pickin's compared to some that are truly valuable and eventually sold at estate auctions. He estimated his collection is worth a few thousand dollars, and said it is stored at a secure location.
Even in the electronic age, campaign buttons remain. But the priest said he's uncertain if younger generations will embrace the hobby. “The meeting had a lot of gray hair.”
The buttons include humorous candidates, too, such as comedian Pat Paulsen in 1968, whose slogan was “We Can't Stand Pat.”
Archie Bunker's TV family is featured on a button, “America's Foist Family.” There's even a “Lady Gaga for President” button.
Sullivan's father, George T. Sullivan, was an attorney who served almost 25 years as Douglas County coroner. Originally from Boston, he felt a kinship with the Kennedys.
But it was the future priest's mother, Mary, who secured the prime seating at the 1960 convention behind the Kennedy family. She ran into the candidate's 28-year-old brother, Ted, who found the Sullivan family a good place to sit.
That was a memorable night for a teenager who became a priest but retained a love for politics. At a later Republican convention, someone asked who he was.
Said an acquaintance: “He's just that crazy priest who is here to collect buttons.”
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