I’m hardly the first person to note the lameness of Time putting a mirror on its “Person of the Year” cover. (“Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.”) My beef, however, is that Time stole the concept from me. Lord knows how Managing Editor Richard Stengel caught wind of it, but I used a mirror in a campaign poster 37 years ago when I ran for president of the sixth grade at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in New Rochelle, N.Y.
The idea itself was, I think, my older sister Patsy’s. Although it seems pretty tired in 2006, in 1969 a graphic incorporating a mirror, and thereby turning the viewer’s eye back on himself, was a pretty cutting-edge notion for a 14-year-old girl to dream up. Patsy procured a round makeup mirror, removed its circular wooden frame, and with black masking tape attached the reflecting glass to the center of a large sheet of orange poster board. Above the mirror Patsy wrote out, “Look Who’s Voting For Timmy Noah For Sixth-Grade President!”
The poster went up in a school hallway. You couldn’t actually see yourself in the mirror because our teacher, Mrs. Klein, or the principal, Dr. Mason, or some other grown-up authority figure, wouldn’t allow any campaign posters to stand at eye level (which of course would have needed to be fairly low to accommodate my fellow 11-year-olds). Still, the concept was what mattered, and that came across just fine. (The reflecting Mylar on Time’s cover is pretty much all concept, too, since it doesn’t reflect all that well.) What does the mirror say? It says, “This campaign/magazine is about you, my friend.” It says, “There is no campaign/magazine that stands apart from you.” It says, “There is only us.”
With the distance of 37 years, I see now that my extremely poor showing in that 1969 election (fourth or fifth, I recall) owed something to the presumption inherent in that mirror on my poster. How annoying for a campaign poster to tell you that you already support the candidate—and you don’t even know it! The intimacy of “There is only us” is entirely unearned. I feel the same way about the Time cover. Get away from me, Time magazine! I’ll decide whether I want to pose for your damned cover—not you!
In the end, however, the deciding factor in that sixth-grade campaign was not what I attached to my campaign poster. Rather, it was what the victor, Billy Roberts, attached to his: an 8-by-10 glossy of Fran Tarkenton, then a star quarterback for the New York Giants, with his arm draped around … Billy Roberts. Above the glossy, Billy wrote out, “Fran Tarkenton Says …Vote For Billy Roberts For Sixth-Grade President!” Later, somebody told me that Billy’s dad had some sort of in with the Giants.
It’s axiomatic in politics that endorsements don’t count for much. But I think it’s safe to assume that this sixth-grade election for class president at Roosevelt Elementary was an exception. Billy won in a landslide. I ended up being class secretary, the guy who took notes at all the meetings Billy presided over, which of course was even more humiliating than ending up with no position at all. (A dozen years later, as I was starting my career in journalism, Dr. Mason wrote to ask whether the person writing those insightful articles about politics and government policy in the New Republic was the same bright young boy she’d known at Roosevelt Elementary. I felt pretty good until I got to the part where she noted that her Timmy Noah had been … class secretary. Was it my imagination, or did I catch the faintest whiff of mockery?)
I never ran for political office again. I have no idea what happened to Billy Roberts—a few months after this sorry debacle I moved across the country to Southern California—but Fran Tarkenton, I note with some satisfaction, is reduced to selling Bobble Heads of himself on the World Wide Web.
Fran. Dude. Some of us have learned to move on.