Constitution Center explores presidential campaigns, personal touches

To get ready for November’s election, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has on display the very first presidential campaign ad.

In 1840, William Henry Harrison distributed flags emblazoned with an image of himself in his shirtsleeves, standing in front of a log cabin.

“In reality, he was from a very wealthy, prominent family. He himself had been a politician for many years and was a well-known military figure,” said exhibition developer Erin McLeary. “Not only is he the first guy to go out and campaign for himself, but with this campaign he was actively trying to position himself as a common man, part of the folk.”

Previously, presidential candidates thought campaigning for yourself was uncouth, and would send friends and surrogates to do the stumping and bragging.

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The Constitution Center has gone into election-special mode, adding several new, temporary objects to its permanent exhibition. These objects present presidents of the United States as regular people with outside interests, including Bill Clinton’s saxophone, the jar for the jelly beans Ronald Reagan used to keep his smoking habit at bay, and the pocket diary George Washington’ used to track changes in the weather.

“You could see more of their personal life through that,” said 16 year-old Kayla Izenman. “At the same time they are icons — presidents of the United States — they are people.”

Izenman is attending WHYY’s journalism summer camp, a two-week program teaching teenagers the basics of reporting. At a reporter’s request, several students came to the Constitution Center as an experiment to see what people who are too young to vote would find interesting in a exhibition about elections.

Anvit Rai, 16, was attracted to interactive voting booths that asked for his opinions, then suggested the candidate that best suits him.

“A lot of facts are muddled up in the media,” said Rai. “So it gives you three major topics and you choose your opinions on them. And then in the end it tells you if Barack Obama is more your match, or if Mitt Romney is more of your match.”

Center offers constant revelations

Because most of the teenagers grew up in Philadelphia, they had visited the Constitution Center many times during school field trips.

“Each time we come back here, I always find something new,” said Dalya Hahn, 16. “There’s text and objects, and being a 15 or 16-year-old, I’m not going to go through and read each one. So I feel like each time I come back, I read something new and browse something I haven’t seen before.”

Lindsay Turner, 14, was engrossed by an exhibit of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I like to put myself in the shoes of other people,” said Turner. “Even though I’m not for the Ku Klux Klan, to get into the mindset, and, like, wow, is this what they think like?”

The election artifacts will be on display until the end of the year.

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