By: Steven Heller
February 21, 2017

One in a 25-part series of nonfiction stories about objects of political significance. This is the first volume in the PROJECT:OBJECT series. Please subscribe to the P:O newsletter; and purchase P:O apparel and accessories — all profits will be donated to the ACLU!


In 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was murdered, Kamar Incorporated, a Japanese novelty company, produced a doll version of JFK sitting in his famous Oval Office rocking chair — a therapeutic device to ease his chronic back pain. The chair doesn’t look like the original, yet Kennedy’s likeness is fairly accurate. The version I found a few years ago has him wearing a brown suit, white shirt and tie, black vinyl slip-on shoes, and simulated socks. His body is solid, but his limbs, a wire armature, predict the withered physical deterioration that his Addison’s disease might have caused had he lived. Scores of Kennedy souvenirs were produced during his lifetime; this one is eerie.

At 10 years old, in the late summer of 1960, I met John F. Kennedy. It was my first trip to Washington, D.C. I had just entered the large elevator in the Capitol Building with my uncle’s girlfriend (later, his wife), who worked as a statistician for Life. She had procured tickets to the Senate gallery and a pass for the senators’ private elevator.

As we waited for the elevator operator to close the gate, a voice from the hall bellowed: “Hold on.” A tall, heavyset man with Buddha ears entered the car. I didn’t recognize him; it was Senator Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy followed. I stood staring in awe, my heart pounding, mouth shut.

In 1960 I was JFK all the way. He was young, handsome and heroic, nothing like the flaccid doll. During his campaign, every day after school I worked at his campaign’s storefront headquarters in an empty Horn & Hardart Automat on East 42nd Street (where later the Philip Morris headquarters was built). I ran a movie projector that repeatedly showed a promo film with Frank Sinatra’s voice-over singing “Vote For Kennedy” to the tune of “High Hopes.”

That’s how I met Kennedy for the second time. Right before the election, a rally was held at the old New York Coliseum with a star-studded cast, including Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Sinatra, and dozens more. I was given tickets. The hall was packed. Drawn by some inexplicable chutzpah I left my parents and shoved my way through the enormous crowd to the foot of the stage where one of the VIPs, who knew me from the automat, grabbed my arm and pulled me onto the stage just as JFK was walking off. He shook my hand. I never wanted that moment to end.

JFK was larger than life. This effigy is just 11″ tall and sits on my desk as a reminder. Oh yes, other than the tragic year it was made, there is another cruel irony. The chair is actually a music box that plays “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The one I have is broken.


POLITICAL OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | Astra Taylor on SALAM’S NECKLACE | Carolina A. Miranda on POCHO | Stephen Duncombe on PROTEST SIGN | Marisa Silver on SHAMAN BOWLS | James Hannaham on DR. BUZZARD LP | Virginia Heffernan on HRC PAINTING | Kenya (Robinson) on BURNER PHONE | Kathryn Davis on POLITBUREAU | Chenjerai Kumanyika on NAT TURNER PRINT | Alexis Madrigal on MERMAID COSTUME | Anne Boyer on ALL KNEES AND ELBOWS OF SUSCEPTIBILITY AND REFUSAL | Steven Heller on JFK DOLL | Anne Elizabeth Moore on BLOOD PRESSURE MONITOR | Gary Dauphin on RUM BOTTLE | Tom Frank on DNC PASS | Lizzie Skurnick on GROUP PHOTO | Stuart Ewen on SNCC PIN | Benjamen Walker on BEEF BOX 12″ | Rob Walker on CAMPAIGN SIGN | Alex Kalman on THEM=US PIN.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.


Codebreaking, Spectacles