Portraits of a president

During the press conference with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (at right) portraits were still on display in the Grand Foyer at the White House.

Contributed by Sharon Butler / CNN reported that the official portraits of former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have been removed from the Grand Foyer of the White House and replaced with portraits of Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The Grand Foyer, where visitors to the White House first arrive and gather, features many life-sized presidential portraits, and those of the most recent presidents are traditionally given prominent placement. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s portrait has not yet been hung; next year the Bidens should be inviting the Obamas over to celebrate its installation.

But who directed that McKinley and Roosevelt supplant Bush and Clinton? In the absence of publicly reported facts, I considered some plausible scenarios. We know that the switch came right after Trump’s visit with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Suppose Trump, egged on by images of the NAFTA architect (Clinton) and an advocate for immigration reform (Bush), launched into an incoherent diatribe against his predecessors in celebration of his new (but barely different) North American trade deal and his hardline immigration policies. Could staffers have made the change to remove embarrassing rant triggers during future visits with other VIPs and world leaders?

Harriet A. S. Murphy, Portrait of William McKinley, 1902, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, 1903, oil on canvas, 58 1/8 x 40 inches

There is recent precedent. In 2019, presidential staff requested that the Navy destroyer USS John McCain – named for the late US senator and war hero who famously got under Trump’s skin – be moved before Trump’s visit to Yokosuka, Japan, on Memorial Day. The Navy refused, and instead someone threw a tarp over the ship’s transom so that the name wasn’t in Trump’s field of vision.

There may be other factors. McKinley was the 25th president, elected in 1896 in a Republican victory, and a favorite of GOP political operative Karl Rove, who wrote The Triumph of William McKinley. Ironically, McKinley, unlike Trump and the GOP in 2020, forged a broad coalition of Blacks, Germans, Scandinavians, and women. “McKinley is the first to do this,” Rove reflected in a 2015 NPR interview. “And he realizes he has to do this because the Republican Party cannot win unless it breaks out of its pattern of being in the north – the white Anglo-Saxon party. He’s the first Republican candidate for president ever endorsed by a member of the Catholic hierarchy.” Also unlike Trump, McKinley ran on clearly articulated policies and was far from a populist. His 1896 victory began an era of GOP presidencies that – with the significant exception of Woodrow Wilson’s two terms – ran until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in a landslide in 1932.

Trump, of course, is not a history buff. What he knew about McKinley was likely much more limited and recent. According to CNN, Trump has always been peeved that during Obama’s term, the name of the tallest peak in the United States, located in Alaska, was changed from Mount McKinley to Denali. Alaskans had sought to return the mountain to the original Native American name since 1913, shortly after it had been renamed, and were finally able to get congressional approval to do so during the Obama administration. The name “Denali” stems from “deenaalee,” which is from the Koyukon language and means “tall one.” Naturally, Trump sees it as erasing a white American symbol.

McKinley was assassinated shortly after his second term began, and Theodore Roosevelt, his vice president, became the 26th president. Raised in a wealthy New York family and educated at Harvard, Teddy Roosevelt exuded privilege and cultivated a reputation as a man’s man, running with a cohort of cowboys, big-game hunters, prize fighters, and adventurers, and leading the “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American War. For Trump and many of his followers, he’s a natural if superficial (he was also an early environmentalist and an antitrust champion) icon. Trump or some clever minion might have wanted TR front-and-center to counter protesters’ proposal that the Roosevelt statue be removed from the entrance to the Museum of Natural History on the ground that it represents white supremacy and privilege.

I suppose it’s possible that whoever chose the new portraits might regret selecting pictures of presidents with retrograde political associations. More likely, though, that was precisely the point.

Related posts:
Presidents’ Day video: The unveiling of the official Obama portraits
Beyond the legend: James Baldwin at David Zwirner
Carter Ratcliff: Art in the age of Trump

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