Political trading cards are a hot item on Capitol Hill


Washington -- It's difficult to believe that a hard-hitting Baltimore Oriole has much in common with your two U.S. senators.

But sure enough, all three appear on trading cards this spring.

On the nation's playgrounds, a Cal Ripken or a Brady Anderson probably has a higher trading value than a Barbara Mikulski or a Paul Sarbanes. But not in political circles.

"Political cards are a sleeper in the industry," says Paul McGue, TC sales representative for Wild Card Inc., a Cincinnati trading card manufacturer. "When the cards are looked back on by history buffs, they're sure to rise in value."

The set of congressional trading cards comes from a not-so-surprising Washington source: lobbyists. The National Education Association distributes the cards for free, and started making the cards four years ago to grab attention for its Capitol Hill lobbyists.

U.S. lawmakers get 500 cards with their own faces on them, plus a 535-card set showcasing their Capitol Hill colleagues.

The personal trading cards also include some vital statistics on each lawmaker, such as personal background, committee assignments and party affiliation.

"It's a nice tool to show that maybe government's as important as sports," says Dick Vander Woude, who helped create the congressional trading cards. "But not everybody grasps that idea right away."

Along with members of Congress, political personalities from across the country are finding their way onto baseball cards.

Kitchen Sink Press Inc. pumps out up to 10 different nonsport trading card sets each year. Jamie Riehle, the company's marketing manager, says there is growing interest in the political card collection.

One of the company's biggest success stories was a series called "Republicans Attack" -- a parody of the popular 1962 series "Mars Attacks" by the Topps Co.

The original cards featured nasty aliens ganging up on innocent earthlings. The remake shows Republicans doing the same to Democrats. The set was popular during the last presidential race, with 10,000 copies sold in 1992.

The set takes photographs of the GOP's elder statesmen, alters them with computer technology and then places them in compromising positions.

In one card, Paul Tsongas -- the former presidential candidate known for taking all-too-revealing swims while on the campaign trail -- crams teeny red bikini bottoms over the heads of unsuspecting Republicans.

In another campaign card, former President George Bush gets advice from two controversial sources: one-time Ku Klux Klansman David Duke and conservative pontificator Patrick Buchanan.

The cards' promoters insist they're not grinding any political axes here.

"It's true, the company was founded in the hippy heyday, and we've always had that underground leaning," Mr. Riehle says.

"But we're perfectly willing to do another set -- it's just that no Republicans with a sense of humor have brought us an appropriate set at this point."

In the trading card world, there does seem to be some bipartisan ribbing. Even the "Republican Attacks" cards take a few pokes at Ross Perot and President Clinton.

One card shows one-time presidential candidate Perot sitting under a halo and hoisting a cornucopia of $100 bills. Flip the card the other way, and the Texas billionaire reappears sporting red horns and a swastika, armed with a handgun and a squealing pig.

Another card features Mr. Clinton in a pink-and-white checked apron, serving milk and cookies to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a cadre of suit-clad fellow Democrats.

Although they're hottest at election time, political trading cards are by no means a new fad.

A set from the 1800s features pictures of the presidents, with each card fitting to the next like a puzzle piece. The set now sells for $1,200.

Presidential sets continue to be popular. A 77-card set of John F. Kennedy portraits by Topps now sells for about $200, while a 1964 presidential race set goes for about $115. That collection captures Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater in black and white photographs.

Themes of more modern sets are wide-ranging -- from the Iran-contra scandal to Operation Desert Storm to Mr. Clinton's first pitch on baseball's Opening Day.

Even the government's budget woes make for a popular card. In a set titled "DC's Big Budget Circus," a jet flies away with loads of cash streaming behind it, under a heading that reads "Stop That Plane!" The back of the card lists the taxpayer costs on junkets and personal travel by Washington lawmakers.

In the midst of all these political spinoffs, should the sports superstars plastered on traditional cards be worried?

Says Roxanne Toser, editor of Non-Sport Update magazine: "I get annoyed because people don't pay attention to sets that have a lot more worth and are more interesting than comic superheroes. The most popular non-sport cards around right now are comic-book related and fantasy cards, like the ones that show very muscular-looking men with loincloths and daggers."

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