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Preston on Politics: Memorabilia helps preserve convention history

  • Story Highlights
  • Two Smithsonian workers focused on documenting convention history
  • Their goal is to chronicle the daily lives and moods of the delegates
  • Such items hats, buttons, sweaters, wooden axes and signs already preserved
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By Mark Preston
CNN Political Editor
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The fireworks over Denver and balloon drop in St. Paul are distant memories of the 2008 presidential conventions, but Harry Rubenstein and Larry Bird hope the handful of Democratic and Republican delegates who pledged to help preserve history keep their word.

While the international media descended upon Colorado and Minnesota to report on the day-to-day activities of the presidential conventions, Rubenstein and Bird were present to chronicle the daily lives and moods of the delegates for future generations.

They work for the Smithsonian Institution, and they are tasked with putting together a historical narrative of these unique national events that bring together political activists every four years to help select the next president.

Sure, they collected the mass-produced signs distributed by the candidates such as Sen. John McCain's "Country First" and "We Love Cindy," or Sen. Barack Obama's "New Energy for America" and "Renewing America's Promise."

But these two historians were looking for special things, of personal value; objects that helped provide color for these otherwise professionally choreographed political stump speeches. Video Watch more on the Smithsonian's quest for political nostalgia »

"Whether it's a great convention hat or some piece of clothing that they've made, those are the things that I think really excite us, because it shows their involvement in this political process," Rubenstein said.

But how do you persuade delegates to part with personal political memorabilia, such as a hat that they have spent hours, days or even weeks constructing? Well, a little prodding and a simple request that the delegate mail the item to the Smithsonian after the convention might do the trick.

"A lot of times, it's really not even fair to ask the person that has something that you like because they spent so much time on it, and it has such a great personal meaning to them," Bird said. "If they could take it off and give it to you, would you really want it? We want what they can't give you, at least at that moment anyway. So, we might quietly give them a business card and explain who we are, what we're doing, why we're interested in this thing they've made, the hat they're wearing; you know, that sort of thing."

Rubenstein and Bird have been attending national conventions since the 1980s, following a Smithsonian tradition that dates back 20 years earlier. Tucked away in the back hallways of the National Museum of American History, neatly catalogued in metal cabinets and wooden drawers, lies the political treasure that has accumulated for nearly 50 years.

Hats, buttons, sweaters, wooden axes, and yes, even a fly swatter are handled with the greatest of care.

Rubenstein described it as the "closest thing we have to a political presidential campaign collection of record."

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So, what booty did Rubenstein and Bird come home with from Denver and St. Paul?

Well, we will have to wait a few weeks or months for a full accounting. After all, the two historians are still waiting to see if the delegates kept their business cards and are now carefully packing up their hats and other political memorabilia to be sent to the nation's capital, to America's museum for future generations to see.

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