My Obama Agenda -- Stopping the Portrait Craze

By Michael Wiseman
Saturday, January 3, 2009

Washington is awash in Obama lists. Crises to be confronted. Challenges to be met. Problems to be addressed. Irritants to be soothed. Itches to be scratched. The chattering class has become the tabulating class.

We're burying our poor president-elect in to-dos.

Nevertheless, this humble citizen cannot resist adding to the cacophony of concerns. My recommendation: Toss the pictures, and be modest in their replacement.

I'm referring to the omnipresent pictures of the president, vice president and members of the Cabinet. In February 2001, the Bush administration began an extraordinary portraiture deployment across all levels and locations of government. It's time to call those troops home.

Whereas in previous administrations a few pictures of the chief executive seemed to suffice, by summer we had in every agency not only pictures of the president but also glossies of the vice president and the relevant (if that's the right word) Cabinet officer. The images are not limited to reception areas; every political appointee seems to have a set, and there are thousands.

In 2003, a British colleague, stunned by the ubiquity of executive photographs in one agency we visited, remarked that he had witnessed an equivalent portrait reverence only in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad. In government buildings in the United Kingdom, he said, one rarely sees a portrait of the queen, let alone one of the prime minister.

(When pressed, my friend did concede that the Iraq analogy was a bit of a stretch. He had encountered no Bush or Cheney Great Leader statues.)

Over time, Cabinet members have expanded the iconography initiative. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, for instance, has turned the hallway outside her office into an impressive exhibition of modern American photography. Honoring American working people? Well, not quite.

A surreptitious study of the pictures in the hallway outside Chao's office, conducted the week before Christmas, found the following: There are 130 pictures. They're big -- typically 30 x 40 inches -- and in color. Some indeed show people who appear to be doing honest work. But these are outnumbered by the 73 scenes featuring administration stalwarts.

Thirty-nine of the pictures show only Secretary Chao. Fourteen feature only President Bush or some combination of the president, Laura Bush and Vice President Cheney. Twenty pictures mix the secretary with some combination of the White House group.

These counts include only those pictures in the immediate vicinity of Chao's office. There are numerous pictures elsewhere at the Labor Department headquarters, including a newly unveiled depiction of Chao, in oil, in the library.

In fairness, it should be noted that while Chao's pictures are numbingly numerous, they are generally bested in size by the portraits that former housing and urban development secretary Alphonso Jackson had placed in the foyer of HUD headquarters. On the other hand, Jackson did not require an on-call hairdresser.

The next president would do well to rein in the picture madness. Why do we need such photos at all? The decent thing would be to minimize the cult of personality and deny the incoming Cabinet the trappings of vice-royalty. We would honor real public service by acknowledging the contributions of great administrators of the past, thereby identifying the standard against which the new cadre might expect to be measured.

The Bush-bunch icons are public property. I suggest that all of them be auctioned to souvenir hunters. The money raised might be used, in part, to restore the lights in the Roosevelt Memorial or to repair a Metro escalator or two.

But that's another list.

The writer, a research professor of public policy at George Washington University, lives in Arlington.

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