National Portrait Gallery Makes Changes Concerning 9/11 to Caption of President Bush's Picture

"The notion . . . that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one 'led to' the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked," Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote.
"The notion . . . that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one 'led to' the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked," Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote. (By Brendan Hoffman -- Associated Press)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The National Portrait Gallery has taken the unusual step of amending a caption for a portrait of President George W. Bush at the request of a U.S. senator.

The caption describes the Bush administration and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In a letter to the gallery, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) objected to the language that said "the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq . . ."

Sanders wrote: "When President Bush and Vice President Cheney misled our nation into the war in Iraq, they certainly cited the attacks on September 11, along with the equally specious claim that Iraq possessed vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The notion, however, that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one 'led to' the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked."

Soon after Sept. 11, the Bush administration did suggest there was a link between Iraq and the attacks. Later, the 9/11 commission reported that there was no evidence of a collaborative relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq. That view was supported by the FBI and Bush later concurred.

Martin E. Sullivan, the gallery's director, thought the request was reasonable and ordered that the caption be amended. The new text will be installed today.

The new wording eliminates the "led to" phrase and instead provides a list of events that mark the Bush terms. It now reads ". . . Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office."

The president's portrait and one of Laura Bush were unveiled last month.

Sanders, who was told about the caption by a staff member, said yesterday he was satisfied that the museum acted quickly.

"On one hand, one could say this is a small issue; on the other hand, it is not," Sanders said. "People can like George Bush or not. People can support the war in Iraq or not. But we have got to get our history right. George Bush has acknowledged 9/11 did not cause the war in Iraq. That is simply the case. I don't like the rewriting of history."

Sullivan, who has been director of the museum since April, explained: "The core issue here is not about a political point of view but a clarity of the sentence. In this instance, Senator Sanders called attention to the original label, saying it implied there was a direct causal relationship. We didn't intend to do that, but wanted to list the defining events of the Bush administration."

All the captions at the Portrait Gallery are limited to 140 words, whether they describe a president or an opera singer. Occasionally they are changed when sharp-eyed visitors notice a factual or grammatical mistake. The gallery changed the word "lynching" to "murder" in the case of one historic portrait.

Over the years, exhibitions at the Smithsonian, of which the Portrait Gallery is a part, have drawn criticism from members of Congress.

In 2003, a Senate hearing included a testy discussion of the captions in a photography exhibit on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian officials said they had not used the text in the photography book, the basis of the show, because they decided the language -- about the pros and cons of oil drilling -- was political, and stated that they had not caved into political interests.


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