Warlick: Mr. Presidential Collectibles

In 1980, Jim Warlick arrived at the Democratic National Convention in New York City with a pile of “Jimmy Carter for President” buttons to sell. That was the start of Worthologist Warlick’s career in campaign and political collectibles.

Seven presidential elections later, Warlick will be at the Democratic convention in Denver with the American Presidential Experience, the largest collection of presidential memorabilia outside the Smithsonian Institution.

Jim Warlick speaking at the American Presidential Experience press conference in July

There will be an antique copy of the Declaration of Independence made in 1776, Harry Truman’s presidential limousine, a pair of Abraham Lincoln’s shoes and campaign buttons going back to 1804.

“We are really trying to get people close to the American presidents though this nonpartisan tribute to the office,” said Warlick. “It isn’t about the DNC. It isn’t about Barrack Obama. It’s about the presidency.”

Warlick—who started gathering election memorabilia at age 10 in Morgantown, N.C., by stuffing mailboxes with Democratic campaign literature and saving copies for himself—mounted a smaller version of the American Presidential Experience at the Republicans’ 2000 convention in Philadelphia. It drew more than 90,000 people. The idea for the exhibit came from former Philadelphia mayor, Democrat Ed Rendell.

After the Philadelphia convention, Warlick hit upon the idea of a traveling exhibit that drew more than 300,000 in New York City and formed the foundation for the American Presidential Experience Museum in Branson, Mo. Warlick located the museum in Branson, he said, “because I felt that there were a lot of kids from the Midwest that might never get to Washington, D.C., to see that kind of presidential memorabilia.”

$10-million Declaration of Independence on display

In Denver, Warlick’s collection will be buttressed by a large exhibit by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, in Springfield, Ill., and the $10-million copy of the Declaration of Independence, which is on loan from television producer Norman Lear.

There will also be documents signed by each of the nation’s presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush and replicas of gowns worn by 10 of the nation’s First Ladies. Other replicas will include the Oval Office (visitors will be able to sit at the desk and have their picture taken) and the 707 Boeing version of Air Force One.

First Ladies’ inaugural gowns

“This is as close as people can get to the presidency,” Warlick said.

Indeed, over the last 28 years, the thing that has changed most at political conventions has been the ability of ordinary people to get close to the action, said Warlick, who has also designed campaign material for nine presidential candidates including Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and John Glenn.

“Back in 1980, you could wait outside the convention and get a floor pass and go in for a look,” he said. “When you came out, somebody else could use the pass.” Both the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the nature of the convention itself have changed that.

“Security is very, very tight now, and floor passes are only good for those people they are issued to,” Warlick said. “That’s one of the reasons we are putting on the Presidential Experience.”

The convention itself has also changed. “It’s all show now, very high tech, very scripted,” Warlick said. “The old convention started in the afternoon and ran until 10 p.m. There was often a lot of give-and-take on issues and surprises. George H. W. Bush didn’t name Dan Quayle as his running mate until the second day of the convention.”

“That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore,” he said. “Everything is a foregone conclusion.”

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