HUD's Exhibitionist

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Spring is almost here. And that means tourists are on their way to see the monuments, the pandas, and exhibits at the new National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery's East Building or the National Museum of Natural History.

But few visitors will venture far from the usual sites to see a spectacular exhibit -- just a short walk from the Mall -- that so very much captures the spirit, the essence, the greatness of this shining city on a hill.

Yes, it's the beautifully designed photo homage to one of our nation's leaders, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson. The photo exhibit is boldly and proudly displayed in the lobby of HUD's headquarters building, itself a dreadful gray relic of Great Society architecture.

Tour groups need not even go through the inviting metal detectors to admire 20 large, color photographs of the secretary, each about 2 feet by 3 feet. No fewer than five of them feature Jackson with President Bush-- in the Rose Garden, in the Oval Office, chatting together, coming down the steps at the Capitol.

The photographs cover an entire wall of the lobby as you enter, passing two other photos, the smaller official ones, of Bush and his old buddy from Texas days, side by side to greet you.

There's a lovely picture of Jackson testifying, another of him looking pensive, one neat one of him wearing headphones as he looks out a helicopter window flying over somewhere -- perhaps those FEMA trailers in New Orleans. (One minor quibble is that no brief explanations accompany the photos.)

The exhibit includes photos of an empathetic Jackson talking with a disabled child in a wheelchair, chatting with three women and giving a speech. And there is another of him at a construction site, the only one that might help visitors connect Jackson to his job here.

Best to go soon as possible. Jackson is under investigation by HUD's inspector general and the Justice Department for various alleged acts of favoritism in awarding HUD contracts. It's been reported that investigators are looking into whether he helped steer no-bid and inflated contracts for New Orleans and the Virgin Islands to friends and whether he lied when he told authorities he had not.

And investigators are looking into his alleged role in arranging a contract for a golfing pal who allegedly did repairs and remodeling on Jackson's South Carolina vacation home.

Should Jackson be indicted, he may well have to step down from his job, which could place the exhibit in jeopardy. And even if his term is not shortened, he and this example of Americana will most surely be gone early next year.

Don't forget -- when you finish admiring this exhibit in HUD's southeast entrance, the one used by the public and folks on official business, there is another at the northeast-corner entrance just a few steps away.

This one is equally stunning but a bit smaller, with only 18 photos -- and only two with Bush. There are more photos of Jackson speaking, testifying and looking thoughtful, and one of him talking on a cellphone near a building, which again offers a clue as to his government job.

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