In the helter-swelter August, a downtown Buffalo hotel played host to the biennial national convention of the American Political Items Collectors (APIC), and as a half-assed amasser I joined the bourse, of course.
I started on my spotty collection as a lad, when my dad found a Woodrow Wilson pin bearing the alliterative and specious motto “Peace/Preparedness/Prosperity” in my grandparents’ attic on a December Sunday in 1971, as we were fetching Christmas decorations while watching the Dennis Shaw-era Bills tumble home to a 1-13 season. (I knew my Catholic forebears were Democrats mad for Al Smith, but that Presbyterian prig Woodrow Wilson? Espionage and Sedition Act Woodrow? Deep frier of doughboys Wilson? Surely this badge was planted by one of George Creel’s Four-Minute Men.)
By the next fall, my brother and I and our pal Mark were dropping by the Republican and Democratic Party headquarters on Batavia’s Main Street every few days to scoop up a finger-pricking array of “Nixon Now” and “McGovern-Shriver” pins. We were hooked. (I still have a bag of 500 yellow Arthur Levitt for Comptrollers. Five bucks or best offer.) In later years I narrowed my focus to peace and populist and libertarian and local items, so that I have Riker mounts filled with the campaign pinbacks of Hiram Johnson and Bob Taft and Fighting Bob La Follette and even a button for my wife’s mentor at USC, John Hospers, the philosophy professor who ran as the Libertarian Party’s first presidential candidate and attracted the rogue elector Roger MacBride, heir to the Little House on the Prairie fortune. For two hours I wandered the aisles in Buffalo, tempted only once, and that by an unaffordable ribbon promoting the presidential prospects of Walter Q. Gresham, Grover Cleveland’s magnificent Secretary of State, and quite possibly the most anti-imperialist diplomat in the history of the republic. Gresham left us this warning: if Americans did not “stay at home and attend to their own business,” then “they would go to hell as fast as possible.” We ignored Gresham’s law at our peril. Need I add that Gresham’s nomination to the cabinet was lamented by Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson? I also took in a superb exhibit at the Buffalo convention on New York’s governors, though I skipped the two Roosevelts. Why torture myself? Besides, it’s been all downhill since the governorship of Fourth Ward Al Smith, a patriot of his place who once said, “I would sooner be a lamp-post on Park Row than the Governor of California.” (With all due respect to the Mr. Smith who did not go to Washington, Upstate New York has the most underrated Democratic tradition in American politics. George Clinton–no, not the funky Parliamentarian–Martin Van Buren, Silas Wright, Horatio Seymour, Grover Cleveland: if America had listened to us in the 19th century we’d not be in this fix.) I wandered away from APIC show vaguely disappointed, not so much in the show itself as in my incapacity anymore to respond to celluloids bearing grave images of Thomas E. Dewey or Walter Mondale. They don’t even have camp value—they’re just downers, productive of the same dull dread as when I encounter a shelf of VHS tapes of 1980s comedies at a flea market. Flee the market, indeed. After a fortifying plate of chicken wings at a Buffalo bar with my wife and daughter, I came home and read the last pages of Eric Miller’s Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, an absorbing intellectual biography of the heterodox social critic and historian—a book worthy of its subject. I took a seminar from Professor Lasch in my brief and ill-starred graduate school detour at the University of Rochester. He was thinking through his masterpiece (The True and Only Heaven) that semester, and though I pestered him with libertarian wisecrackery I thought on things, too. “Corporate capitalism buttressed by liberal cosmopolitanism had no chance of leading to a satisfying end,” as Miller summarizes Lasch’s conclusions. Lasch hoped till his way-too-early death that an American populism might redevelop—not as some Hofstadterian bogeyman but as a rooted expression of working and rural people who understood, from the experiences of their own neighborhoods and parishes and farms, that there must be something better than serving as fodder for the Empire’s wars and social experiments. You won’t find that on a Dukakis or Bush button. Bill Kauffman’s latest book is Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map. This essay originally appeared on The American Conservative.