We were sorry to read that the White House portrait ceremony may be the latest casualty of the political polarization of America. That’s the report from NBC, linked on Drudge. It may be a decades-long White House tradition, notes reporter Carol Lee, but the idea of a first term president hosting the unveiling of the official portrait of his immediate predecessor looks like a non-starter in the age of Trump.
The tradition to which NBC refers has struck us as a wonderful marker of American unity, on top of the fact that we’re enormous fans of portrait painting in and of itself. We wrote about President and Mrs. Obama’s warm welcome to the sprawling George W. Bush family when it came time for the vernissage of John Howard Sanden’s portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Bush ’43. The editorial was called “Hanging George Bush.”
At the hanging, Mr. Bush mentioned the famous incident in which Dolley Madison rescued the Gilbert Stuart portrait of President Washington from the advancing British in the war of 1812. Mr. Bush suggested to Mrs. Obama that should anything happen, she’d know what to do — and gestured toward Mr. Sanden’s portrait of him. He also spoke of how much it meant to him to be hanging not far from the portrait of his father.
Some of the presidential portraits in the White House are better than others, of course; the finest of them include John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Theodore Roosevelt and Aaron Shikler’s portrayal of a pensive John Kennedy. All of the portraits, though, extend the memory of these leaders beyond their own time. It strikes us as good for them and good for the presidency as an institution.
“We may have our differences politically,” NBC quotes President Obama as saying when he hosted “W” for his portrait unveiling in 2012, “but the presidency transcends those differences.” Not only won’t this ritual take place between Mr. Obama and President Trump, NBC reckons, but it might not happen even if Mr. Trump wins a second term. It could be until 2025, the network estimates, that Mr. Obama is welcomed back.
“You’ve got a president who’s talking about putting the previous one in legal jeopardy, to put it nicely. We have not seen a situation like that in history. It takes antipathy of a new president for a predecessor to a new level,” historian Michael Beschloss told NBC. That’s a bit tendentious, for our taste. It turns out, after all, that it was Mr. Obama who unleashed the attack on Mr. Trump, even before Mr. Trump acceded.
The right move is for the two sides to find a way to come together. Mr. Obama would make a wonderful portrait. The colorful and extra-large paintings of him and Mrs. Obama at the National Portrait Gallery have generated huge traffic. The White House portraits would no doubt be more stately. The presidential transition won’t be complete without them. Plus, too, a welcome for the Obamas would set the stage for a happier transition for Mr. Trump, whenever voters decide to make it.