Jim Warlick grew up in North Carolina. When he visited Washington, D.C. for the first time, he was 12 years old and on a school field trip. He bought a John F. Kennedy brass bust because it was one of the few souvenirs he could actually afford.
"I said, 'I'm going to live here someday,'" he said recently.
Now Warlick owns White House Gifts, a massive presidential souvenir outlet near the POTUS home on Pennsylvania Avenue. He is the purveyor of political paraphernalia, the king of Obama mugs and God Bless America teapots.
His affinity for government keepsakes is nothing new. More than 50 years ago, when Kennedy sat in the Oval Office, Warlick began collecting campaign buttons, motivated by the president's dynamism on his black and white TV screen. These days, he has more than 1.4 million of them. But it doesn't end there. Over the years, he's accumulated all kinds of gems: the shoes Jacqueline Kennedy wore while strutting down Parisian streets, the pen her husband used to sign the Peace Corps Act … a copy of JFK's Air Force One, which is currently on exhibition at the Convention Center for PoliticalFest.
Wait … which of these does not belong and why? Shoes, check, pen, check … but … Air Force One?
Warlick accumulated his trove of presidential goodies when he opened the American Presidential Museum in Branson, Mo., after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He had noticed that fewer school children were passing through D.C. because of security concerns, and he wanted to open a center outside of the metropolis where kids could engage with U.S. history.
JFK's original 707 is lodged at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, but Warlick commissioned a replica for his center (he also has a Reagan-era Air Force One recreation). It's actually a Nixon model that Warlick spotted while at PoliticalFest in 2000. He bought it shortly after and had it refurbished in 2004 to reflect the design of Kennedy's Air Force One. Stored in a hanger just outside of Atlanta, the replica has been on a road trip for the past few days, stuffed in a specialty truck to get to Pennsylvania.
Eventually, he shuttered the site in Branson so he could take his collection on the road for even more people to see, at state fairs, or at the Democratic National Convention, for example.
The Philly display is a kind of eulogy to Kennedy on the day of his assassination. As 9/11 is for millennials, 11/22/63 is an infamous moment burnt into the collective consciousness, a moment when everyone from Warlick's generation remembers where they were and what they were doing.
A local broadcast cites the touchdown of Air Force One in Dallas, and elsewhere Walter Cronkite shares the sad news that the president has been shot dead.
"You get cold chills if you remember that day in 1963," Warlick said. "The plane takes you back to that day."
From the cockpit, you can hear the radio: Lyndon B. Johnson, moments after being sworn into office, is calling Kennedy's mother Rose to offer his condolences. Johnson was rushed to Air Force one after the assassination. Jacqueline Kennedy insisted that they not take off until Kennedy's coffin was loaded aboard. Soon after it was, Johnson was sworn in, with the widow in shock next to him.
Warlick spoke about JFK's hold over the public – how he charmed the press and reached for the moon. When foreigners wander around White House Gifts, Warlick still sees them reach for the JFK souvenirs.
"The Kennedys were kind of the American royal family, and there was nothing not to like about John F. Kennedy," he said. "He represented almost a time of innocence, I think. Camelot… it was just the epitome of the perfect family."
If you're wondering about the security implications of having an Air Force One replica open to the public, there aren't any. Reagan was the last president who officially used the 707 model; Obama rides a 747. The PoliticalFest exhibit is not meant to give you the 2016 experience. It's a piece of history used to remember an individual who represented hope for a lot of people at a shaky, scary time with so much instability and even more promise.