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Born To Run

June 2024
1min read

American Politicians Photographs from 1843 to 1993

The Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 208 pages .

The curators who assembled this hook and the exhibition it complements gathered strong, classic photographs of politicos at work—making speeches, getting heckled, holding generations of babies, enjoying moments of relative quiet. The black-and-white plates begin with John Quincy Adams in 1843 and proceed through to the ascendance of Bill Clinton, with intervening views of everyone from Fiorello La Guardia in firefighting gear to President Calvin Coolidge, Gov. Al Smith, and New York City’s Mayor Jimmy Walker all in Native American headdresses. The Socialist leader Norman Thomas stands under a hail of hecklers’ eggs and vegetables; Thomas Dewey, in his suit and tie, handles a cow’s underbelly.

The chronological presentation provides insight into the changing nature of press coverage; awkward shots of Presidents and candidates either weren’t taken in the past or just weren’t used. The pictures of a young Richard Nixon leaping and President Johnson showing his stomach scars seem almost shockingly unguarded after the decades of podium thumpers and election parades. A picture of a New York political club’s Christmas party, with rows of derbyed men eating at long white tables, gives us as much of turn-of-the-century American political culture as any stump photo of William Jennings Bryan. A portrait of a communists’ meeting in 1930 shows a frozen cross section of the American left, interracial and with placards urging a five-day week and an end to lynchings. The authors have made a study of American politicians that moves in an easy political rhythm from the absurd to the heroic and the ordinary.

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