John Ponikvar shows off his collection from the 2000 election.  All of his buttons are organized by the year of the election. Ponikvar focuses on Republican candidates.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

John Ponikvar shows off his collection from the 2000 election. All of his buttons are organized by the year of the election. Ponikvar focuses on Republican candidates.

Presidents and pretenders

Memorabilia collection accounts for history's winners and losers

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A collection of buttons on display in Ponikvar's office. While Ponikvar focuses on republican hopefuls, Democratic and Independent candidates creep into his collection.

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Brian Baxter shows off a variety of the presidential buttons he owns. Baxter's collection is more varied than John Ponikvar with something representing every election and a variety of candidates, including many who never made it.

— "Sterilize LBJ: No more ugly children!"

"Prostitutes vote for Nixon or Kennedy."

"I'd rather hunt with Dick Cheney than ride with Ted Kennedy."

As the above slogans - found on past presidential campaign buttons - attest, the world of professional politics can be an ugly, slanderous business. But, these are some of the milder lashings found throughout the course of American political history.

If you want cutthroat, said Craig resident Brian Baxter, a collector of presidential campaign memorabilia, go way back.

"If you go back into these books," said Baxter, of the small library of history books stored in the basement of his home, "you'll find the insults and accusations. : Back in the old days, character assassinations were far more prevalent.

"Our elections are pretty clean now. Our dirty tactics aren't that dirty."

Baxter would be among those who could speak intelligently about presidential politics and campaigns.

After all, he and his friend, Craig resident John Ponikvar, have spent more than a combined six decades collecting campaign memorabilia.

Together, their collections range from the rare - a 1789 George Washington inaugural coat button - to the rowdy - a Fred Thompson dressed as Elvis pin touting his 2008 Oval Office bid.

And while it's likely each man could make a good profit by liquidating the thousands of pieces in his respective works, it's doubtful that will ever happen.

The hobby isn't about money, they said.

"I don't collect it for that," said Ponikvar, who added he plans to someday leave his collection to his children.

"I love the history and what you have to do to verify things," Baxter said. "What's interesting to me is finding all this history. It's just fascinating."

Baxter's father, Harold Baxter of Omaha, started what later became his son's collection in 1930. It was passed down to Brian in the 1960s, and he's been adding to it ever since.

"Probably the neatest campaign for interesting materials has to be the William Jennings Bryan campaign," Baxter said of the American lawyer, statesman and politician who ran for president three times.

Ponikvar started his collection after coming home from a state Republican convention in 1990 with several campaign buttons. His collection, unlike Baxter's bipartisan memorabilia, focuses mainly on Republicans.

Ponikvar said his favorite pieces in his collection aren't necessarily the most valuable. A display case of his material can be found at the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

"The ones I like best aren't the most expensive, but might remind me of a particular time," he said.

While having memorabilia of the winners and top contenders from past campaigns is a must, Baxter said it's just as important to gather material from more obscure candidates.

Baxter's collection boasts campaign buttons from the Gus Hall/Angela Davies ticket. Hall and Davies were leaders of the Community Party USA and ran for president and vice president in 1980 and 1984.

Neither collector said they have plans of leaving their collections as they are. There are plenty of items left to discover, they said.

"I've had all kinds of fun doing this," Baxter said. "This is a fascinating portion of our history. The thing is this keeps me, shall we say, intellectually stimulated."

"Every four years, there is new material," Ponikvar said. "It had a beginning with Washington, but it won't have an end."

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