Pushing Buttons

Portland radio host Carl Wolfson owns one of the world's top collections of campaign buttons.

WOLFSON ON THE PROWL: Always adding to his 18,000-strong collection.

Wolfson's politics are well known from his long-running progressive talk show on KPOJ, and now on XRAY.FM. Less known is the fact that since the 1970s, he's bought and traded buttons from all the way back to 1896, when the presidential race pitted William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan. A large chunk of Wolfson's collection will be on display at Concordia University's library, where he'll also give a lecture on the finer points of button collecting. WW spoke to Wolfson about button valuation, sneering at Sarah Palin's clasp, and Earl Blumenauer's fruitcakes.

WW: Why did you start collecting buttons?

Carl Wolfson: I've always been political. I lived until I was 10 outside Washington, D.C. I was working as a volunteer on Jimmy Carter's [presidential] campaign in 1976, just doing jobs around the campaign office. And I picked up the buttons. 

The fun part for me is the history. Every button tells a story. You find out about the candidate that makes you want to find out if they did nothing in their career or had some impact in history. It's just a window to learn more about history. The value of the button depends on what happens to that candidate in the future. Jimmy Carter produced two different buttons when he ran for governor in Georgia in 1970. After he became president, those buttons went from being worth a dime or a quarter to $40, $50 each, because everyone wanted a "Carter for Governor" button. If someone is involved in a great scandal or if they achieve some incredible success in their career, collectors will pay more for those particular items.

Do you have any buttons from politicians you don't like?

When I look at my collection, I see it as a historical archive. I see the left-wing parties, the right-wing parties, the parties that are no longer with us. I see it all as part of the great panorama of American political history. I don't look at the George Wallace board and sneer. I cast an eye at Sarah Palin every now and then and sneer. But I think when time passes, it's all part of the fabric of this American experience. It makes me very happy to see that we have this history and people have had choices. It's kind of a reflection of civics, really.

Barry Goldwater was rightly called an extremist, but as time has moved on, we judge some of his libertarian views in a much better light. He opposed, in his own lifetime, the takeover of the Republican Party by the Christian right and Jerry Falwell. He supported gays serving openly in the military. I can pick people who would be political idols like FDR and find huge mistakes that they made.

There was a button that said "Impeach One Half of LBJ." That's a great button, because he was an incredible president for civil rights and social justice, and yet Vietnam just tore the country apart. It was probably the worst foreign-policy mistake in our history.

Buttons are obviously a visual medium, while your job is primarily an auditory one. Is that difference in media part of the appeal?

My life is a very public life. I work a lot to produce and host a radio show. And I'm out there talking to groups and doing campaign events. It's just nonstop for me.

That's my respite, this hobby. It's what gives me some peace and quiet away from all that. It is such a great antidote to the whirlwind of public life. Earl Blumenauer bakes fruitcakes every Christmas. He used to bring them by the studio. They're really good fruitcakes. But one of the things that Earl would say was this is his Zen. He loves to bake them. I guess my buttons are like Earl's fruitcakes.

What's your goal with this exhibition?

One of the main reasons I want to do an exhibition is that I want to get them out there and have people see them. My ultimate goal is to find a place—a museum, really—where they can reside. I'd love it to be in Portland. As much as I love doing radio, my dream job would be to somehow curate this collection.

What's the Honus Wagner of buttons?

The holy grail of buttons is a 1920 Cox-Roosevelt jugate. A "jugate" is a button that has both candidates of a ticket (president/vice president or governor/lieutenant governor) pictured.  The Democratic presidential ticket in 1920 was Ohio Gov. James Cox and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yep, the FDR.  There are six varieties of Cox-Roosevelt jugates and very few of each. 

Click Here for a selection of some of Carl's favorites from his collection.

GO: Carl Wolfson's button collection will be on display Oct. 3-5 at Concordia University's George R. White Library & Learning Center, 2900 NE Liberty St. He'll give talks noon Friday and 7 pm Saturday, and host an open house 2-4 pm Sunday.

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.