Ronald Reagan's Golf Balls? Step Right Up!

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Is this the cradle of American democracy, or what? For those Philadelphians and tourists feeling a bit left out by the guest lists and exclusive events surrounding this week's Republican convention, the host committee has put together a little something called "PoliticalFest," an outsized, hands-on museum piece that casts a loving look back at America's political tradition — and gives conventioneers and residents alike a chance to stock up on some truly choice GOP merchandise.

"PoliticalFest" is running all week at the Philadelphia Convention Center (don't let this misnomer throw you — the brand-new downtown hall was deemed too cramped to host the GOP shindig, which was installed instead at the more capacious First Union Center in South Philly). I walked over to the hall Monday, took a deep breath, and headed inside.

Here's what I found:

  • United Airlines understands the true currency of any convention: Credentials. And each PoliticalFest visitor can march right up to the United kiosk, accompanied by the soaring and strangely distressing swells of the "Saving Private Ryan" soundtrack and "register" for their very own "delegate cards," stamped with the visitor's home state. "It's really just a free souvenir," I was told by one of the students working the booths. Thanks for clearing that up.

  • Traditional Smithsonian-esque political memorabilia abounds, including 13-inch statues of each president, each accompanied by a small glass case of presidential doo-dads (including a spoon from Coolidge's inauguration, a pair of the Reagans' wine glasses and a Clinton golf ball). The first ladies are represented as well; inaugural ball gowns line one wall. One seven-year-old girl, pulling her mother by the hand, passed judgment on each dress: "I'd wear that one, not that one, that one, that one...." Personally, I gave Pat Nixon's gown the highest marks: A clean, simple cream-colored satin number with an empire waist. Lucretia Garfield winds up on my worst-dressed list with her multi-tiered lilac satin and lace number. Sorry, Lucretia.

  • The College of Physicians of Philadelphia kindly established a truly creepy display called "When the President Is Patient." The name is ambiguous only until you take a look at the photo display, which features a rundown of pictures no world leader would ever want his enemies to see, including one particularly unpleasant shot of LBJ lying in wait for gallbladder surgery. Let's just say there's something unsettling about seeing the commander-in-chief with black tubing protruding from every orifice.

  • "Delegates" can pose for pictures (sponsored by your friendly local multinational media companies) in "Air Force One" and "The Oval Office," and can sit (but keep the line moving, please) in the "presidential limousine."

  • The Memorabilia Marketplace and GOPShoppe compete for dollars with dueling stuffed elephants, gold jewelry, necklaces made of red, white and blue crazily flashing lights and Reagan mementos ($2,700 golf ball, anyone?). The less traditional Marketplace wins my vote by providing an onsite chiropractor.

  • There's no coffee at voter.com's Cyber Cafe — one company staffer was asked to leave until he finished his morning java. But there are plenty of computers, where visitors can simultaneously catch up on e-mail and enhance their civic knowledge.
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