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Preview: “Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press” at the Newseum

A new exhibition looks at how coverage of presidential campaigns has evolved, from William McKinley to Stephen Colbert.

Photograph courtesy of the Newseum.

Political journalist Theodore H. White once said, “There is no excitement anywhere in the world, short of war, to match the excitement of an American presidential campaign.” At the Newseum this month, a new exhibition proves that point by looking at the changing nature of campaign coverage, ranging from an era when William McKinley won by campaigning on his front porch to a new media universe that analyzes what John McCain eats for breakfast.

If you find the inevitable horse race seems to be drawn out for longer and longer each cycle, you’re probably right: “Every four years” seems like an understatement when campaigns typically kick off as early as two years before an election. But what’s fascinating about this show is how it charts the evolution of campaign coverage, looking at how technological developments changed the nature of presidential races forever. Pictures show how in 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to have a fully furnished press car installed on his campaign train, while 2008 was the first election year to see candidates using Twitter to promote their message.

“Every Four Years” includes some interesting nuggets about campaign coverage in bygone years, such as the fact that the media deliberately ignored rumors about FDR’s friendship with Princess Martha of Sweden and John F. Kennedy’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe. But its most crowd-pleasing items are from more recent campaigns, including the Doritos jacket Stephen Colbert wore to announce his “Hail to the Cheese” campaign in 2008, and a gold-plated microphone used by Rush Limbaugh. There’s also the bowling ball Barack Obama used when he bowled a 37 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 2008, and the guitar labeled “The Prez” that George H.W. Bush rocked at an inaugural ball in 1988.

But the show’s biggest draw will undoubtedly be the suits Tina Fey and Amy Poehler wore to play Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in an SNL skit four years ago, along with the notes Katie Couric made for her now-notorious interview with Palin the same year. In an era when comedy is almost more influential than hard news reporting, it’s a nice memento from a moment few campaign-watchers will ever forget.

“Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press” is currently on display at the Newseum. For more information, visit the museum’s website.