Cabinet secretaries may want to rethink official portraits


Former president George W. Bush unveils his official portrait during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in May. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Traditionally, Cabinet secretaries get their official portraits painted after leaving office — paintings typically unveiled in ceremonies that involve dull speeches and polite clapping — so that they’re immortalized on canvas for all posterity. But in an age in which fiscal austerity is the name of the game, they might want to consider foregoing the pricey gilt-frame treatment.

“It may be tradition, but the practice needs to be reevaluated in light of the $1.3 trillion deficit,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “At some point, you have to question what the point of it is.”

A 2008 Post article surveyed portrait commissions and found that they ranged from $7,500 to nearly $50,000. And some say they’re a relic of an age long before Google image searches and cable news, when the only way future generations might now what an official looked like was from a painting.

Plus, at some point, won’t we just run out of walls on which to hang them?

So far, the Obama administration has seen little turnover in the Cabinet — and so there have been few opportunities to capture former secretaries in brushstrokes. And there’s usually a lag time between the departure and the portrait process.

The Department of Defense, for example, says it hasn’t started work on the painting of former defense secretary Robert Gates, who left the Pentagon last summer.

Ellis notes that Cabinet secretaries aren’t the biggest source of Washington portraiture — that award would probably go to Capitol Hill, where committee chairmen, sometimes even those who held their gavels for fleeting moments, get paintings.

We see the point about saving a few bucks by, say, commissioning a nice photograph instead of a costly painting. But then what about the starving artists toiling away on official portraits, their berets askew, trying to capture Secretary So-and-So with just the right air of dignity and gravitas?

Maybe it’s time to frame official portaits a little differently: They’re all about job creation.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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