Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is sponsoring a measure that sounds like a good idea and features one of those clever legislative acronyms: the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil-painting (EGO) Act. It would outlaw the use of federal funds to pay for portraits of senior officials, especially members of the cabinet. “At a time of trillion-dollar deficits,” says Cassidy, “it is not appropriate to spend thousands of taxpayers dollars on official paintings. . . . Just because it’s a Washington tradition doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it.”
Mr. Cassidy, as it happens, is running for the Senate, and publicity about the EGO Act, which appeals to a certain kind of primary voter, has done him no harm. At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, who would not wish to save the taxpayers’ hard-earned money—especially money that might be spent on, say, an oil portrait of Eric Holder or Nancy Pelosi?
To which The Scrapbook responds: Yes, but. Yes, in the fifth year of the Obama presidency, it is urgent to get federal spending under control, and it’s always important to remember where “federal funds” come from. And yes, The Scrapbook is not especially looking forward to the unveiling of Eric Holder’s portrait in the Justice Department. But the EGO Act requires a little background information.
First, the costs of oil portraits—for presidents or speakers of the House or federal judges—are borne in several ways: Some are underwritten by earmarked federal funds, but many are paid for by private subscription. And while we agree with Cassidy that there is little or nothing sacrosanct about “Washington traditions,” certain traditions, more than others, might appeal to conservatives. Some of the most memorable depictions of towering figures in U.S. history—Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, John Singer Sargent’s Theodore Roosevelt—began as official portraiture. And is a photograph the same as an artist’s portrait? Not really. The same “Washington tradition” that gives us Bill Clinton in oils makes possible the White House portrait of Ronald Reagan.
In fact, the shortsighted nature of the EGO Act reminds us of a similar gesture in the past. When Jimmy Carter was elected president, he installed his 34-year-old second cousin Hugh Carter Jr. as White House special assistant, assigned to cut costs and trim the sails of the imperial presidency. Young Carter, armed with a Wharton MBA, went straight to work: He sold off the historic presidential yacht Sequoia, canceled all White House newspaper and magazine subscriptions, removed some 250 television sets and 175 AM-FM radios—and ended the tradition of oil portraits for retiring cabinet members. Dubbed “Cousin Cheap” by the press, Hugh Carter Jr. probably saved tens of thousands of dollars in an era of half-trillion--dollar federal budgets, while keeping the White House free of radios and newspapers.
In due course, Jimmy Carter was replaced by Ronald Reagan, who understood penny wisdom and pound foolishness in Washington and revived the tradition of cabinet portraits.