Toying With Politics: What Can a Stuffed Animal Teach Us About the President?
I’m expecting the Joe Biden Presidential Library curators to be calling any minute now, asking me to donate my bright pink toy dinosaur.
It’s hard to imagine the mask-free world just over a year ago, when New Hampshire Magazine honored me as one of their presidential “Primary Superfans” for zealously pursuing goofy photo-ops from Nashua to Dixville Notch (and every square inch of granite in between).
For the past four presidential election cycles, I’ve photographed White House hopefuls with my favorite cartoon character – Dino Flintstone – as they’ve stampeded through New Hampshire’s apple farms, ice cream stands and diners. It’s a profoundly different ask than the selfie and autograph requests that politicians typically receive. The dinosaur doll catches them off-guard and forces them to momentarily go off script.
I see my stuffed animal as a personality test: Does the candidate have a sense of humor or, perhaps more accurately, can they embrace a sense of humor that’s different than their own?
When I delivered my elevator pitch to future President Biden during a Concord firefighters’ chili luncheon, he playfully slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Dino better vote for me!”
I have never based my New Hampshire primary vote on the quality of my Dino shots, but I was beaming after this Biden encounter and still am. The guy who will soon be staring down Russia’s Vladimir Putin doesn’t need a teleprompter to banter with me about the Flintstones. He’s pretty good at improv.
My first plush prehistoric photo-op was with U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 race, when he went on to win the Republican nomination. Since then, I’ve shared cartoon karma with more than three dozen presidential hopefuls spanning from real-life dinosaur enthusiast Newt Gingrich on the right to mittens-meme Bernie Sanders on the left. The project was inspired by “The Love Book” and “The Red Couch,” two coffee table books that feature photographs of the same object with strangers across America.
Flipping through the most recent batch of Dino snapshots now is like taking a time machine back to the moment when COVID-19 was still a distant headline. February 2020 was the last relatively carefree month before masks and social distancing became the norm. While primary season is the only time most of us see our elected officials outside the Washington bubble, we’re all now encased in individual bubbles.
It’s probably the most appropriate question a dinosaur can ask: “Will the New Hampshire primary as we know it soon be extinct?” Will the selfie lines and jam-packed school gyms be coming back in 2024? Or will we be doing mostly virtual handshakes and candidate Town Halls over Zoom?
I hope that the many parents who photograph the “Flat Stanley” character in creative poses with their children will appreciate these fun Dino pics and the logistical challenges behind getting them. But the project is also a reminder of how fleeting political dreams can be. Scroll through the photos below and count how many candidates you already forgot ran for president in New Hampshire only a year ago – plus find out which Hollywood movie star also rubbed elbows with Dino!
Jump to a candidate:
Pete Buttigieg | Eric Swalwell | John Delaney | Tulsi Gabbard | Cory Booker | Michael Bennet | Andrew Yang | Marianne Williamson | William Weld | Kamala Harris | Mike Pence | Vermin Supreme | Joe Biden | Steve Bullock | Amy Klobuchar | Tom Steyer | Bernie Sanders | Tulsi Gabbard (Surfer Edition) | Elizabeth Warren | Michael Douglas
Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
To build up my confidence, I like to start with the least famous candidates and fine-tune my elevator pitch before approaching the celebrities. I had assumed that the mayor of an Indiana city only slightly bigger than Nashua would have plenty of empty folding chairs waiting for me. But surprisingly, I couldn’t find a parking space and left my car in front of a Dumpster.
After Mayor Pete’s talk, I muscled my way through the packed gymnasium to a chaotic receiving line. A few moments before it would be my turn, the candidate darted to the other side of the room to greet a new group of voters. Figuring I struck out, I returned to my illegally parked car and found it boxed in by a black SUV with tinted windows. It was Buttigieg’s limo, and I caught him just before he left for Manchester Airport.
“Mayor Pete, I have a Democratic good luck charm. Can I grab a pic of you holding Dino?”
Buttigieg looked down at the stuffed animal and gave me a blank stare. “Sure, why not?” he shrugged.
Not a deep bonding moment, but it was a good start.
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)
Bizarre that it takes a guy from California to open my eyes about an environmental disaster happening a 10-minute drive away from my home. Congressman Swalwell visited Merrimack’s history museum, housed in a 1800s schoolhouse, to discuss PFAS chemical groundwater pollution from a local plastics factory. It’s been a firebrand issue for the town, but inexplicably off my radar.
Swalwell appreciated the novelty of the Dino photos, gamely posing as if he were endorsing a product. But more importantly, he inspired me to test my well.
Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.)
Businessman and former Congressman John Delaney, the first Democrat to declare his candidacy in the 2020 race, grilled burgers and hot dogs for about 50 people before making his case that the party needed a centrist alternative to Biden. He set up one of the sweetest campaign swag tables I’ve ever seen, giving away mounds of heavyweight cotton t-shirts, bottle openers and copies of his campaign manifesto, “The Right Answer.”
Dressing the usually topless Dino in a Delaney bumpersticker, I made my pitch while the candidate was autographing his books. “Sir, I have a fun tradition where I photograph all the candidates with my favorite toy dinosaur …,” I said, not getting to finish my sentence. Frowning at the wrinkled “D” sticker on Dino’s chest, he replied, “I’d rather not pose with a dinosaur,” and quickly pivoted to other guests.
For a few seconds, I felt demoralized. Rejection stinks no matter how it’s delivered. Self-doubt came into play. Was it my wording, my tone, the fact that I was wearing sunglasses and didn’t make direct eye contact?
But I also understood his perspective. He had been on the campaign trail for more than a year and wasn’t gaining any momentum. He wanted to talk about the deficit and the Electoral College, not the Flintstones. Perhaps he thought I wasn’t taking his candidacy seriously. My mood slightly improved after grabbing a complimentary souvenir bottle opener.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)
After the Delaney rejection, I decided there was a problem with my elevator pitch. Instead of trying to be “cutesy” and babbling on about New Hampshire primary traditions, I needed to cut to the chase – especially since candidates have about 30 seconds to a minute to devote to each voter.
My new opening line: “On a lighthearted note, I have a fun photo project where I am photographing people across AMERICA with my favorite dinosaur. May I please get a pic of you holding Dino?”
Because Gabbard drove around New Hampshire with a Wonder Woman doll on her dashboard, I was expecting her to instantly embrace the project. Instead, she gently insisted that I get in the photo with her and my stuffed animal – kind of an insurance policy against the moment being turned into a wacky meme.
It seemed impolite to argue the artistic merits of her just posing with Dino alone (this is NOT a selfie-themed endeavor). So I snapped this pic of her handing Dino back to me before taking the same selfie as everyone else.
Where Are They Now?: Gabbard just wrapped up her fourth term in Congress and opted not to run for re-election. According to her Twitter feed, she plans on launching a new podcast soon.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
As with my preconception of Tulsi Gabbard, I thought Cory Booker would be a slam dunk because of his well-known love for pop culture. He famously campaigned at the 2019 Comic-Con, declaring that he and girlfriend Rosario Dawson were both devout Trekkies and “really big nerds” overall. And locally, he did a meet-and-greet at Manchester’s Electric Avenue barcade, making time for a few rounds of Pac Man and Donkey Kong.
But like Gabbard, Booker wanted me in the picture with him – and I wasn’t about to start a pretentious monologue about preserving my artistic vision. This was the best solo shot I could take before settling for the traditional selfie.
Booker’s response could have been just pure friendliness versus PR strategy. However, it’s no surprise why suspicion is the default state-of-mind in America’s meme-drenched politics. One of my 2012 Mitt Romney photos with Dino wound up resurfacing as a Facebook photo caption contest attracting mostly Mitt detractors. Ugly political rhetoric aside, a few commenters mockingly warned Dino that he was next to be tied to Romney’s car roof – a reference to his family practice of transporting his dog in a rooftop carrier during roadtrips.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)
After the state Democratic Convention at the SNHU Arena, Sen. Bennet hosted a pizza party with former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, winner of the 1984 New Hampshire primary and infamous tabloid target for his extramarital affair that derailed his presidential bid four years later.
I found Hart inspirational when I was a kid and was even a bit starstruck seeing the 2019 version meandering around my favorite pizza place. I asked him about the new Hugh Jackman movie about his scandal (he refused to see it), but lacked the courage to ask the grumpy icon to pose with Dino. I will always regret not doing so.
Oh, Michael Bennet is the nicest guy ever. I at least owe him a retroactive thank you for the free pizza.
Where Are They Now?: Bennet is serving his second term in the U.S. Senate and is up for re-election in 2022. Unfortunately, Portland Pie closed its Manchester and Nashua restaurants and now you need to go to Maine.
Andrew Yang, Entrepreneur
For reasons that are still unclear to me, Yang pledged that he would become the first president to use PowerPoint in his State of the Union address. And then, I kid you not, maybe about 10 Microsoft groupies at this aviation-themed bar started a short-lived “Pow-er Point! Pow-er Point!” chant.
Yang’s campaign aide seemed perplexed that I wanted a pic of the candidate with a stuffed animal instead of myself. But Yang just went with the flow.
Marianne Williamson, Self-Help Author
Following a yoga workout and group meditation for world peace, Williamson was happy to see her face adorn a dinosaur’s stomach. The empty chairs in the photo are deceiving. This pic was taken after the event with most of her New Age supporters in line behind me.
Where Are They Now?: Williamson’s presidential bid is helping her promote her books, new podcast and motivational seminars.
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld
Gov. Weld has never met a goofy photo-op he didn’t like. At a 1996 press conference announcing environmental legislation to protect the Bay State’s waterways, Weld once dove into the polluted Charles River while wearing full business attire. He also has no qualms being photographed next to fellow Libertarian Vermin Supreme, the shaggy self-declared “President of New Hampshire” who wears a boot on his head.
So posing with a pink dinosaur doesn’t faze him.
Where Are They Now?: Weld is a senior advisor to “Shining City Upon a Hill,” a nonprofit public policy organization promoting a “sensible and limited government.”
Former U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
Harris was supposed to visit Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office today to file her candidacy. Instead, she dropped out of the New Hampshire primary so she could focus all her resources on Iowa. I had to settle for photographing cardboard.
Former Vice President Mike Pence
With a tone of confidence I suspected he usually reserved for Cabinet meetings, Pence made direct eye contact with me and rhetorically asked, “That’s Dino Flintstone, isn’t it?”
I wanted to continue this conversation, perhaps ask if the vice president prefers Cocoa or Fruity Pebbles, or share a laugh over the fact that Dino’s long neck requires him to stick his head through the sunroof of the Flintstone family vehicle. But the surly Secret Service had other ideas, briskly moving Pence along.
Vermin Supreme, Performance Artist/Activist
Political satirist and Libertarian presidential candidate Vermin Supreme was at the Statehouse for the sole purpose of taunting Vice President Mike Pence and his supporters – and he could have taught a master class on the subject.
Kept at least 25 yards away from the action by NH State Police, the undeterred Vermin kept shouting through a megaphone: “I’m from the future! Mike Pence was the worst president of the United States!”
The heckling prompted some meanspirited insults from the Republican crowd, with some calling him a “homeless Santa Claus.” Ironically, some of these same people asked to pose for selfies with Vermin after the vice president left town. Although Vermin appears to biting Dino’s head off, no stuffed animals were harmed during this photo-op.
Where Are They Now?: Now busy recording personalized birthday messages on Cameo, Vermin Supreme is also considering a run for the 2024 Libertarian nomination.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
I was absolutely certain I would receive the John Delaney treatment from Joe Biden. In 2008, the candidate turned down my Iowa friend Andy Green, who had a similar photo project starring Mr. Potato Head. Biden told him matter-of-factly: “I don’t take pictures with funny hats and funny toys.”
Perhaps some of Biden’s seven grandchildren changed his previous hardline stance on toys. Because this year he playfully slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Dino better vote for me!” (Green tells me that Biden also posed with his plastic spud in Iowa this time around.)
Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
Following a press conference officially declaring his candidacy, I reminded Gov. Bullock that Montana is world famous for its dinosaur fossils. So posing with one of the world’s most famous dinosaurs was totally on brand.
“Is this kind of like Flat Stanley?” he asked.
Unlike many other candidate interactions, this one was less rushed. I was able to reposition Dino in the governor’s hands so he was upright instead of staring at the floor. However, the moment I let go, Bullock let Dino’s posture slump again. I didn’t dare waste his time for another second.
Where Are They Now?: Bullock lost his bid for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Steve Daines. The former governor told Montana Public Radio that he wants to take a break from politics to spend more time with his school-aged kids.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
After the Q&A session, I made the mistake of being first in line to greet the Minnesota senator. She seemed a bit stiff and uncomfortable with the Dino request, but to be fair she was expecting selfies with people. I had a much warmer interaction with her at my town’s 4th of July parade, when she saw my daughter’s Red Sox hat and bragged about her first-place Minnesota Twins.
The fact I can make that comparison proves how spoiled we are as New Hampshire voters, meeting presidential candidates face-to-face multiple times while other states may never see them. This was Klobuchar’s 18th campaign trip to the Granite State.
Tom Steyer, Billionaire Philanthropist/Activist
After an hour of sharing his dislike of Washington lobbyists, prescription drug prices and global warming, Steyer updated the crowd on the score of the Patriots-Bills playoff game for the AFC East title.
News that the hometown Pats were ahead received only scattered applause — perhaps because no real Patriots fan would choose to watch Harvard Law School Prof. Larry Lessig (the moderator) over Tom Brady.
Sporting his trademark ugly plaid tie, Steyer came across more as a high school principal than a billionaire when he greeted Dino and noted that the dinosaurs had to face climate change, too.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.)
Two observations about Bernie Sanders: 1. He is not easy to get a picture with. Unlike most other candidates who build in “selfie time” as a campaign imperative, Sanders sprints for the exit sign after a few perfunctory handshakes. 2. His branding team is amazing. The “End Corporate Greed Tour” would look fantastic on concert t-shirts.
Embracing Dino a year before the Biden Inauguration, Senator Sanders proved he begrudgingly appreciated offbeat humor well before all the knitted mitten memes of him Photoshopped into old movies and TV shows.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)
On New Year’s Day, Congresswoman Gabbard became the first presidential candidate in New Hampshire primary history to campaign in a wetsuit. Across from the delightfully named Cinnamon Rainbows surf shop, she also taught me about the challenges of photographing surfers.
Moments after wading into sea – Gabbard is carrying the mint green board – I could only see shapeless blurry black silhouettes as I squinted into the sun. From a distance, I couldn’t tell the difference between Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders. (Seacoast Online photographer Matt Parker captured the action much better.)
Because I had already met Tulsi in a Goffstown flower shop, I didn’t bug her on the beach.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
Navigating through jam-packed church pews the night before voting day, I had a choice between waiting in line to meet Senator Warren or waiting to meet her golden retriever Bailey (you can bring dogs to church?). Both lines were pretty long.
Warren’s 20-something aide was flummoxed that I didn’t want get a photo of myself with the senator, but after posing for more than 100,000 selfies, Warren had seen it all.
I especially like the soft “God light” reflecting off the church walls and illuminating Dino’s face here.
Where Are They Now?: Warren is serving her second term in the U.S. Senate. She is up for re-election in 2024.
Michael Douglas, Actor
I missed out on Bull Durham co-stars Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon (who separately stumped for Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders respectively) in New Hampshire, so I had to trek south of the border for a celebrity sighting.
Michael Douglas must really love former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg because he did this campaign appearance at a strip mall only a few weeks after his Hollywood icon father, Kirk, died at 103.
Douglas was jovial when he posed with Dino, acting like stuffed animal photo requests are a regular occurrence. I never had a chance to ask Bloomberg because he strategically skipped the New Hampshire Primary and Iowa Caucuses, deeming them irrelevant to winning the White House.
I can’t claim credit for this, but a friend cleverly suggested captioning this pic “Romancing the (Flint)Stone,” an homage to the 1984 action-adventure movie co-starring Douglas and Kathleen Turner.
Where Are They Now?: Mike Bloomberg is still busy running his media empire. Michael Douglas is preparing for his role in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the third film in the Marvel series.
Before the pandemic, hand sanitizer was already a behind-the-scenes staple for politicians on the campaign trail (see Larry David’s classic “SNL” skit as Bernie Sanders). But what happens now? Are handshakes ever coming back? Will selfies remain extinct for the 2024 New Hampshire Primary – or will they still happen from six feet away?
Surely, there are much bigger issues facing our state and country, but I hope that 2020 wasn’t Dino’s last hurrah.