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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

Playing with the presidents

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Barbie dolls are dressed to look like Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Lucy Hayes, Hillary Clinton, and Mamie Eisenhower in a collection donated to the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. Barbie dolls are dressed to look like Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Lucy Hayes, Hillary Clinton, and Mamie Eisenhower in a collection donated to the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

Standing stiffly at attention, a man wears a stern look on his face and an American flag on his lapel. There's one on the boxer shorts beneath his suit, too.

The man is George W. Bush.

He's 12 inches tall, he talks, and he's the latest in a generation of toys that have found new ways to hail to the chief.

The election may be over and the war chests may be empty, but the toy chest remains. With Presidents' Day coming up tomorrow, now's a great time to look inside, where the Bush doll has a few buddies to keep him company.

A Houston company called Toypresidents, Inc. has created a dozen different presidential action figures, and has another 20 figures, including Ulysses S. Grant and First Lady Laura Bush, which will be unveiled this week at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

Intended as an educational tool, each has been replicated down to, well, their skivvies.

"It's a very serious product, but that's kind of our way of having a little bit of fun with the figure," said Dwayne Crosby, the company's vice president.

Collectors these days can choose from a potpourri of other presidential toys, everything from a George W. jack-in-the-box - the president pops out standing at a podium - to a squeaky dog toy that looks like the president (slogan: "You can't get even, but your dog can").

For those less interested in presidential people, the Presidential Pet Museum in Maryland sells "presidential petibles," including stuffed animals that look like Barney, the Bushes' dog.

Anyone can get a piece of the presidency these days. For years, artist Tom Tierney has created paper doll books depicting presidents for Dover Publishing, and last year toymaker Mattel threw Barbie's hat into the ring when it introduced Barbie for President dolls. (She was the candidate of the Party of Girls).

More available than ever thanks to the Internet, political novelties are nothing new.

The indomitable Theodore Roosevelt was particularly famous for inspiring games and toys - teddy bear, anyone? - through his personality and adventures, whether it be a trip to Africa or his role in the Spanish-American War or even his teeth.

"Roosevelt was famous for his teeth," explained Gary Faber, a presidential campaign memorabilia dealer from Clyde. "There are many toys involving just Teddy's teeth. One is a whistle that you can put into your mouth made out of tin shaped like Teddy Roosevelt's teeth."

Back in the 19th century, some of the novelties could get nasty. Consider the pig-shaped figurines with holes in the rear end through which one could see the image of a hated politician.

All these items help convey a sense of history.

"We don't dismiss stuff like that," said Tom Culbertson, interim executive director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. "It's more evidence of the taste of the day, I suppose, than anything."

For the general public, they're good fun, and for collectors they can be valuable, but for museums like the Hayes Center, which has a set of donated Barbies dolled up to look like different First Ladies, they can be important, too.

"Those make up great exhibits at some point," Mr. Culbertson said. "You get people in to look at some of those kinds of things and then have some serious history there with it."

The peak season for selling presidential toys is before an election, but as President's Day nears, collectors such as Jonathan Binkley often stay busy.

"After a campaign is over ... they almost give them away because the popular appeal is over for the general public, but the collectors a lot of times will come in and buy a lot of them," said the 64-year-old former government teacher at Whitmer High school.

A collector for more than 50 years, he has amassed over 5,000 items, including the board game Clintonopoly (one still wrapped in mint condition; one open for playing), punching hand puppets of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and the Bush jack-in-the-box. He's also waiting for the arrival of a set of bobble-head dolls depicting the members on the 2004 presidential tickets.

Of the latest batch of popular toys, Tom Sosnowski, managing editor of the trade publication Playthings, particularly likes the talking presidential action figures, each of which has at least 25 audio clips.

"The talking dolls are kind of cool," he said by phone from Manhattan.

He's got one himself - a mini-Mr. Reagan, still standing in his box.

"It says all kinds of great stuff," he said.

Like?

A brief pause. Then his voice continued, this time changed into a gravelly mix of Mr. Reagan and Clint Eastwood:

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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