On Stamp Collecting and Politics
Programming Note: My paying job requires travel, and I’ve been on the East and West Coasts in the past few weeks. The travel put writing on hold for a bit, but I am now back to a regular schedule for a few weeks.
When I left politics in 2015, I became the Executive Director of an international non-profit membership organization for stamp collectors. At some point, I will share the 2016 recovery of an Inverted Jenny stamp stolen in 1955. For non-collectors, it’s an upside-down airplane stamp and one of the most well-known stamps in American history. But for now, let’s discuss the intersection of politics and stamps.
One of the most notable collectors in American politics, Franklin Roosevelt, was often photographed in the White House pouring over his collection as a respite from the pressures of the Great Depression and World War II.
Today, both former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff, John Sununu, and his son, former U.S. Senator John Sununu, are both avid stamp collectors. They are joined by the likes of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin, former Bush Administration official Karl Rove, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, among others.
Even libertarian icon, Ayn Rand, was an avid collector and sang its praises in a 1971 article for Minkus Stamp Journal. Even 50 years later, her observations still speak to the value of the hobby:
The pleasure lies in a certain special way of using one’s mind. Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people – because, in patterns, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world…. A career requires the ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady progression to a goal…. Purposeful people cannot rest by doing nothing…. They seldom find pleasure in single occasions, such as a party or a show or even a vacation, a pleasure that ends right then and there, with no further consequences.
The minds of such people require continuity, integration, a sense of moving forward. They are accustomed to working long-range…. Yet they need relaxation and rest from their constant, single-tracked drive. What they need is another track, but for the same train – that is, a change of subject, but using part of the same method of mental functioning. Stamp collecting fulfills that need….
In stamp collecting, one experiences the rare pleasure of independent action without irrelevant burdens or impositions. Nobody can interfere with one's collection, nobody need to be considered or questioned or worried about. The choices, the work, the responsibility - and the enjoyment - are one's own. So is the great sense of freedom and privacy.
People cannot interfere, but they can be very helpful and generous. There is a sense of "brotherhood" among stamp collectors, of a kind that is very unusual today: the brotherhood of holding the same values...
The pursuit of the unique, the unusual, the different, the rare is the motive power of stamp collecting. It endows the hobby with the suspense and excitement of a treasure hunt - even on the more modest level of collecting, where the treasure may be simply an unexpected gift from a friend, which fills the one blank spot, completing a set...
There is a constant change in the world of stamps, and constant motion, and a brilliant flow of color, and a spectacular display of human imagination... Speaking esthetically, I should like to mention the enormous amount of talent displayed on stamps - more than one can find in today 's art galleries. Ignoring the mug shots of some of the world's ugliest faces (a sin of which the stamps of most countries are guilty), one find real masterpieces of the art of painting..."
In all those years (when not active in stamp collecting) I had never found a remedy for mental fatigue. Now, if I feel tired after a whole day of writing, I spend an hour with my stamps albums and it makes me able to resume my writing for the rest of the evening. A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer.
Though notable political figures have long inhabited the ranks of collector, politics stops at the door. It’s remarkably refreshing to see people from all walks of life come together with a common interest.
The beauty of collecting is there is no set objective. Collections are often as unique as the collector. Though people assume it’s a solitary hobby, there is a spirit of community unmatched in many segments of life. Most collectors are teachers and students simultaneously, sharing their knowledge and seeking to learn more. Philately is more than just plugging stamps into an album. Anything related to the mail, the post, and stamps have a collector.
One of the more exciting items in my collection is a 1929 first day of issue cover of the 2-cent Edison stamp commemorating 50 years of the light bulb. The stamp is placed on a franked cover from Representative Ernest Ackerman, who represented the fifth district of New Jersey from 1919 until he died in 1931. Ackerman was a member of the American Philatelic Society and an advocate for stamp collecting. Though Menlo Park was not in his district, he advocated for issuing the Edison stamp. Before the 1990s congressional franking reforms, members of Congress used franked envelopes for personal use, putting stamps on the cover.
The cover and letter were gifts from a fellow member who gave them to me because of my political past.
I was not a stamp collector when I got hired, and I’m not much of a collector today, but I see the incredible value in the hobby. Though politics have no place in stamp collecting, I’ve long believed that politics could benefit from more stamp collectors.
Professionals for Association Revenue published a profile on my work in the non-profit sector since leaving politics during my travels. The byproduct of fighting an endless stream of spending battles in Washington and South Carolina was grasping finances deeper. Those lessons came in handy when I landed at the American Philatelic Society and the American Philatelic Research Library.
Our debt peaked at $5.4 million, spread across five mortgages by December 2016, and just four years later, we were debt-free. Serving the membership of the organization and leading this transformation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.