Actually, it turns out the purpose behind those tiny pins is much bigger than mere ornamentation.
Politicians use lapel pins to make pointed statements about their beliefs, prove their status, and sometimes just to send subtle yet unmistakable messages to their foreign counterparts.
We’ve dug up the history and the idealism that underpins some of the pins that both presidents and congresspeople have worn to make their point stick. Let’s dive in.
Presidential flag pins: proving patriotismIf you watch a modern presidential primary debate, it looks like pinning an American flag to your suit is a prerequisite for stepping on stage. But it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, it was a fictional presidential candidate that started the tradition off in the first place.
It was 1972, and Robert Redford played Bill McKay, an underdog presidential candidate in the aptly titled movie The Candidate. In the film, McKay is seen sporting an American flag pin on his lapel.
In a case of life imitating art, then-President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, noticed the pin and thought it would be a grand look for his boss. Nixon agreed, and the flag pin became a common sight on the president’s chest.
Caption: Nixon sports a flag lapel pin. Source
The presidential flag pin went the way of Nixon’s ill-fated second term. No president would don a similar pin for 30 years. Then, the country was shaken by 9/11.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was not wearing a lapel flag pin. By the time he addressed the nation after the attack, he was. From then on, the flag lapel pin has been a mainstay on the lapels of politicians.
The presence of a flag pin on a president’s lapel is so common that it’s noticed more when it’s absent. For example, Barack Obama caused a kerfuffle by leaving his lapel lacking.
Obama put the pin back on soon after. But wearing a pin isn’t always the safest option either.
Governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie chose a pin shaped like his home state of New Jersey that almost got him sued by the New Jersey Bar Association.
caption: Governor Chris Christie wears the lapel pin that almost got him sued. Source
It turns out the New Jersey Bar Association held a copyright on the pin design, and they were none too happy when Christie sold the pins to raise funds to support his political ambitions. A word to the wise: if you’re going to infringe on a copyright, make sure it’s not one held by a group of lawyers.
Congressional pins: requiring recognitionThere are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and there can be a high turnover rate (104 Congresspeople left office in 2018, for example). That’s a lot of faces to keep up with. Congressional pins help security and press identify members of Congress, especially among the throngs of aides and pages that often surround the members.
The first congressional pin was issued in 1975. Since then, every session of Congress since has received a pin.
Each of those pins gets a whole new design, and it’s up to the House Administration chairperson to choose them. At least one congressperson feels that the most recent pin, designed for the 116th congressional session, is fitting of our current political climate.
“They have serrated edges,” tweeted Ted Lieu, a congressman from California. “That seems appropriate.”
Spouses also get a pin, but with a different background color.
If you want a congressional pin of your own, it won’t come cheap.
“When I first got elected,” said former Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), “someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I love that pin you’re wearing, how do I get one?’ I said, ‘It’ll cost you about $1 million to get elected to Congress, and then you’ll get one.’”
4 times politicians used pins to get their point acrossLapel pins have played an outsized role in political culture. Here are four times politicians attempted to stick it to their opponents with varying degrees of success.
Signaling the serpent
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first woman to hold the high-ranking position. She is an avid pin collector. (She even wrote a book about it.) Oh, and she used her pins to poignantly thumb her nose at America’s adversaries.
Like the time the state-controlled Iraqi press compared her to an “unparalleled serpent.” As she told the story to the Smithsonian:
“I had something dreadful to say about Saddam Hussein on a daily basis, which he deserved because he had invaded Kuwait. The government-controlled Iraqi media then compared me to an ‘unparalleled serpent.’ I happened to have a snake pin, and wore it to my next meeting on Iraq. When the press asked me about it, I thought, ‘Well, this is fun.’”
Caption: Albright’s antique snake pin. Source
That was the first time Albright perfectly articulated her point with a pin. There were many others.
For example, after she learned about a listening device the Russians had planted near her office: sitting front and center on her lapel was an insect-shaped pin. A “bug” pin, in other words.
And then there was the time Albright showed up for negotiations on an antimissile treaty with the Russian foreign minister wearing a missile-shaped arrow pin.
“The Russian foreign minister asked, ‘Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?’ And I responded, ‘Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.’”
Albright's #pingame is strong.
When you’re really passionate about a cause, you want everyone to know about it. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is passionate about cycling, so he spreads the message by wearing and sharing neon bike-shaped lapel pins.
Caption: Congressman Earl Blumenauer and his neon bike pin. Source
Blumenauer says he owns around 10,000 of the two-wheeled-themed pins. And he’s been known to give them out to staff, visitors, and reporters. In fact, some Beltway insiders consider getting “pinned” by Blumenauer a right of passage.
Those neon pins have helped Blemenauer create a political force to be reckoned with. The group he founded—the Congressional Bicycle Caucus—is now more than 130 members strong, with representatives from 39 U.S. states and territories.
Since its founding in 1996, the group has helped crank out legislation like the Bike to Work Act and has seen bicycle commuting climb by 60%.
Why would vice-presidential hopeful Tim Kaine wear a Honduran flag pin during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention?
That’s what the North Carolina Republican Party asked in a tweet.
The problem is, it wasn’t a Honduran flag. It was a Blue Star Service Flag pin commemorating his son’s service in the U.S. Marine Corps. The tweet was deleted, but Twitter never forgets.
For comparison, here’s the Honduran flag next to the Blue Star Service Pin.
The resemblance is uncanny.
Warning about warming
Global warming is a hot topic on the Hill. Three Senators wanted to draw attention to the debate with pinpoint accuracy during President Trump’s State of the Union Address in early 2020.
To make their point, senator’s Tom Carper, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Chris Van Hollen wore pins representing “warming stripes.”
The warming-stripes design was developed by climate scientist Ed Hawkins. They’re meant to represent the rise in global temperature from 1850 to 2018.
Caption: “Warming stripes” pin, as worn by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. Source
As the debate over climate change heats up, the warming-stripes lapel pin is being adopted by more lawmakers.
Lapel pins still have a prominent place in politicsThe presence of political lapel pins shows no signs of slowing down. During the 2020 presidential and vice-presidential debates, every candidate wore some version of a flag lapel pin.
If you’d like to show your pride with an American flag pin, we have several in stock to choose from. Even better, if you’d like to start a conversation with your own custom-designed pin (political or otherwise), WizardPins will help it come to life.