By MARSHA MERCER
A perk of being a Washington bigwig is to be immortalized the old-fashioned way -- in an oil painting paid for by taxpayers.
The official portrait of former CIA Director Leon E. Panetta was unveiled Sept. 5 at the CIA, where a Directors Gallery honors every chief since the first in 1946.
What made Panetta’s painting different from his predecessors’ and most, if not all, the hundreds of official portraits on walls around Washington was his decision to be painted with his dog, Bravo.
Panetta, who served as CIA director from February 2009 to June 2011, has said his golden retriever was in the room during some of his toughest moments, such as planning the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
In the portrait, a smiling Panetta has both hands on his pet, making him look more like a genial professor than the spook who took out Public Enemy No. 1. The picture elicits appreciative “awws” from pet lovers, but it also raises a question:
Is an official portrait – even of a distinguished public servant like Panetta -- a good use of your tax dollars?
Taxpayers spent $300,000 last year alone on oil portraits of senior officials, reports “Wastebook 2013,” the annual compendium of wasteful federal spending published by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
The price tag of the CIA’s portrait of Panetta wasn’t disclosed. But if one picture is worth the cost, whatever it is, how about two? Of the same person?
Panetta served eight terms in Congress and was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. After his stint at the CIA, he was secretary of defense from July 2011 to February 2013. So, naturally, the Defense Department commissioned a Panetta portrait last year for its Pentagon Collection.
I say naturally because over the last decade the Defense Department has ordered 25 of at least 69 official portraits purchased by government agencies, according to “Wastebook.”
The Defense Department contracted to spend $31,200 on its Panetta painting, which hasn’t been unveiled yet. The sum is infinitesimal in the Defense budget, but it’s real money to many Americans who have no say how their taxes are spent.
Don’t get me wrong. I love portraits, especially those that give us a glimpse of the subject’s personality. Generations of school children might have no idea what George Washington looked like were it not for artist Gilbert Stuart. There’s still a place for portraiture in the 21st century.
But as often is the case, the government is being free with other people’s (our) money. An official portrait shouldn’t be the default honor for a departing agency head.
In October 2012, then-Defense Secretary Panetta presided over the ceremonial unveiling of the official portrait of former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Speaking that day, Gates mentioned that the same artist had painted the official portrait of “a certain CIA director” two decades earlier.
“It didn’t seem all that different, a few pounds lighter, maybe a couple of inches taller. The hair a more useful shade of white,” Gates said, drawing laughter. He was CIA director from 1991 to 1993.
“A sure sign you’ve been in Washington too long,” Gates said, is when the portraitist has “more than one crack at your portrait a generation apart.”
You can argue Gates and Panetta deserve the honor. But people whose careers are not nearly as distinguished sit for artists on the taxpayer’s dime.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered a $20,000 portrait of former Sec. Steve Preston, who was in the job all of seven months. “Wastebook” also reports taxpayers forked over $20,000 for former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, $23,000 for former NASA deputy administrator Lori B. Gardner and $30,000 each for the first and second Homeland Security secretaries, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t pick up the tab for a portrait that costs more than many hardworking taxpayers make in a year,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is leading a bipartisan effort to rein in spending on portraits.
The proposed Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act would prohibit federal funds for portraits of members of Congress and most agency heads and set a cap of $20,000 per painting of those in the line of succession to the presidency.
Congress should stop spending taxpayers’ money on official portraits – even for bigwigs who have good dogs.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.