Presidential Portrait Palaver

Presidential portraits – Steve Kelley | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial CartoonistAmong dictionary definitions for palaver is an “unnecessarily elaborate or complex procedure.” Traditions, especially public ceremonial ones, too often tend to become encumbered with pomp and circumstance that detracts from the purported value of the tradition itself.

Sometimes, such traditions are breached by iconoclastic behavior by an honoree or host of the ceremony. On March 27, 1973, Marlon Brando refused to appear to accept the Oscar awarded to him for his performance in The Godfather as a protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans in film. A Native American actress appeared on his behalf.

The 1964 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Jean Paul Sartre, who declined to accept the honor for fear of appearing to become part of the “establishment.” Also in 1973, Le Duc Tho, a critical participant on behalf of Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accords, declined to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace along with his co-nominee, Henry Kissinger, because peace had not yet been achieved. In 2016, the Nobel award in literature was offered to Bob Dylan, but difficulty in contacting the singer caused a delay in its presentation until the following year.

Presidents of the United States, as a rule, tend to avoid iconoclastic behavior, as the role demands a certain expression of calm deliberateness as the leader of the world’s most powerful country. Criticism of predecessors is number one on the no-no list. Even salacious events such as the Lewinsky affair do not hinder traditional honors associated with the office. This is true even in light of the fact of two impeachment trials for the nation’s 45th president. His portrait is entitled to respect.

For decades, first-term presidents have conducted a White House ceremony in the East Room, unveiling an oil portrait of their immediate predecessor. President Obama hosted George W. Bush in 2012. No such event occurred to honor Obama during Trump’s administration, most likely due to the fierce animosity between them. This break in tradition contributes to the palaver embroiling the Biden administration.

Given the nature of the current president and his respect for tradition, he is in a position to host the unveiling of both Obama’s and Trump’s portraits, creating a continuum of presidential courtesy and amity at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Trump has not recognized Biden as the duly elected president and did not attend his inauguration as tradition dictated, any invitation to the White House is fraught with convoluted optics. Press reports indicate the Obamas will be honored this fall and that Trump is negotiating with participating institutions to have his portrait painted. If Obama’s portrait is hung in 2021, when might Trump’s be installed?

However, since Trump has not recognized Biden as the duly elected president and did not attend his inauguration as tradition dictated, any invitation to the White House is fraught with convoluted optics. Press reports indicate the Obamas will be honored this fall and that Trump is negotiating with participating institutions to have his portrait painted. If Obama’s portrait is hung in 2021, when might Trump’s be installed?

If Biden is reelected in 2024 or, say, Kamala Harris succeeds him, would Trump attend or mimic Marlon Brando? Even the election of a Republican to the presidency in 2024 may not be sufficiently acceptable, especially as many of those in the candidate ranks such as Rubio, Romney, and Cruz are not necessarily Trump choices.

Nonetheless, the 45th president insists his role has not been iconoclastic, as one comment from an aide indicated:

“We are working with both the National Portrait Gallery and the White House Historical Association, and our progress is consistent with historical precedent.” 

“Consistent with historical precedent” appears to be a reference to the tendency of Trump to create his own precedents. Perhaps Biden may seek to create a more iconic precedent and invite both the Obamas and the Trumps at the same time to the East Room. Surely, that would qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. Biden had privately joked that Obama’s presence at the White House for the event was the very reason for his election. The White House press secretary hinted that Biden would extend an invitation to both former presidents. 

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, according to the Nobel Committee. In 2020, Donald Trump was among a group of national leaders awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Medical Education “for using the Covid-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.” The Ig Nobel was created in 1991 as a satiric gesture to call attention to trivial accomplishments.

Unfortunately, the prestige of Trump’s portrait being potentially hung in Washington does not make up for the three academic awards that were unceremoniously rescinded:

  • Doctor of Business Administration from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland (conferred 2010; revoked 2015)
  • Doctor of Humane Letters from Wagner College, Staten Island, New York (conferred 2004; rescinded 2021)
  • Doctor of Laws from Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (conferred 1988; revoked 2021)

Before it crashed, the social platform of the former president was said to have contained a pledge to conduct the portrait ceremony in August upon his installation as the 46th POTUS, bumping Biden from succession. There was no indication whether the Obama ceremony would be held at the same time, but observers commented that such an unprecedented step would not be unusual for Donald Trump. Protocol pundits are in deep anxiety concerning the status of the evicted current claimant to the title of 46th president, as well as that of the vice president-in-waiting, Mike Pence. The worrisome eviction of claimant VP Kamala Harris places her equally in protocol limbo.

Of course, if the August installation fails to materialize, the nation may have to wait until following the 2024 presidential election to receive clarification of which portrait will be hung by which White House inhabitant and when. Sources close to the discussions describe the affair a “palaver in extremis.” 



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