Politics Still Pushes Buttons. This One Sold for $185,850.

Ted Hake has seen his fair share of memorable campaign tokens since he started his auction business, Hake’s Auctions, in 1967. The peanut-shaped fishing lure with a mouth shaped like Jimmy Carter’s toothy smile stands out. There are also campaign cigars, bottles, plates and lots of ribbons.

But a recent procurement might have topped them all: a button with side-by-side images of James Cox, the Democratic nominee for president in 1920, and his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. This week, that button sold for $185,850, a record for Hake’s business.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Cox ran for president — or for not knowing who he was at all. The Cox presidential campaign has been lost in history. But that also makes memorabilia from that under-the-radar campaign rare — and valuable, in the world of campaign buttons.

“Those are kind of the holy grail,” Hake told us. In fact, a pin promoting the 1920 Democratic presidential ticket set a record of its own decades ago, when it went for about $30,000.

But Hake, who lives in York, Pa., and started his hobby by collecting Lincoln pennies as a child, told us there were a multitude of one-of-a-kind buttons.

In his button book — yes, of course there’s a button book — “Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons,” Hake writes of buttons as an early form of social media, describing them as “a way to tell others what was on your mind as a tool to help spread an idea.” The 1960s and 1980s were high points for political button popularity, he said. Since the pandemic forced many enthusiasts to stay home, they have focused more on their hobbies. So business has been booming, he said.

“America started collecting buttons as soon as they came out in 1896,” Hake said. “And they really never stopped.”

History that never happened

Some of the most iconic political buttons are for victorious presidential campaigns — “I Like Ike” in 1952 stands out. But some of the most sought-after buttons commemorate moments in American history that never actually happened.

Take the 1920 election.

Cox and Roosevelt lost — by a lot. Warren Harding won the election, beginning a string of Republican administrations that would last through the Great Depression. Buttons that read “I Saw Kennedy in St. Cloud” are also popular — Kennedy never made it to that event, instead delivering an address on the phone. At the time, The New York Times reported that Kennedy couldn’t go because of “inclement weather.” Earlier this year, a button from a scheduled 1956 rally for Eisenhower sold for a few hundred dollars. Eisenhower never showed up at that rally — he had to cancel a string of campaign stops before his re-election to stay in Washington and deal with the Suez crisis.

“The story of American history can be told through buttons,” said Adam Gottlieb, who has worked for decades with the American Political Items Collectors, a group that was founded in 1945 to work with collectors of political memorabilia and that continues to hold shows and conventions today. Gottlieb called buttons “as American as baseball and jazz.”

Bumper stickers peel off. You can’t wear a lawn sign or even fit it into a drawer. But, even if they get damaged or stained, buttons are forever. Or pretty close to it.

“You literally wear your heart on your sleeve,” Gottlieb says. “Or your politics on your lapel.”

Measuring value

Scott Mussell, the Americana specialist at Hake’s auction business, told us he’d been working on acquiring the Cox/Roosevelt — the shorthand collectors use to refer to that button — for nearly a decade. The buyer of the Cox/Roosevelt wishes to remain anonymous, Mussell told us. When Mussell was asked how he celebrated the sale, he said he went home and slept. Such is life in the button trade.

Mussell’s favorite button in his personal collection wouldn’t sell for nearly as much as the most sought-after ones, like the Cox/Roosevelt. It’s a pin similar to the one that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wore at the March on Washington while delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“It’s not a particularly rare button,” he said, “but it’s an iconic button.”

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Covid easing, Covid lingering

On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Doug Mills took the photos above on Tuesday and Thursday at the White House. Here’s what he told us about capturing these two moments:

The top picture shows President Biden and Jill Biden walking into the East Room to celebrate National Women’s Month on Tuesday. Vice President Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff had been planning to attend, too, but when Emhoff tested positive for Covid, the couple canceled those plans.

Tuesday’s event was the largest crowd I’ve seen at the White House in more than two years. The East Room and Cross Hall were packed with guests. And only a handful of them wore masks.

Covid restrictions at the White House have ebbed and flowed in 2022. Masks were part of the attire for everyone during January and the beginning of February. Since then, however, events have grown larger and we’re seeing fewer and fewer guests wearing masks. The president is also attending events in ballrooms again, though some of the attendees do wear masks.

The picture below, taken on Thursday, is the polar opposite. The evening prior, Prime Minister Micheal Martin of Ireland attended a gala with Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he left early when he was informed he had also tested positive for Covid. The next day, Biden had a virtual bilateral meeting with Martin, who was 100 yards away inside the Blair House.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you Monday.

— Blake & Leah

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