The so-called Senatorial “Hall of Fame” gained two new members Tuesday when the late Sens. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) joined a quintet of legislative giants long known as the “famous five” on the walls of the historic Senate Reception Room.
The portraits — placed in two of the remaining six “medallions” left blank by the artist Constantino Brumidi in the late 1800s — depict the the pair of 20th-century Senators at the “height of their career,” said Senate Curator Diane Skvarla.
The additions were the first in nearly 50 years, since the initial five “outstanding” Senators — Daniel Webster (Whig-Mass.), John Calhoun (D-S.C.), Henry Clay (R-Ky.), Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) — were selected by a Senatorial panel chaired by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1957.
At Tuesday’s unveiling, the late president’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the portraits served as a reminder to the Senate that “we are living for history” more so than for “the moment.”
After the 1959 unveiling of the first five portraits, four decades passed before then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) introduced a resolution directing that the portraits of two more “outstanding” Senators be commissioned. That was in 1999. The Senate approved the resolution the following year.
Lott’s resolution limited the pool of potential candidates to those Senators who were deceased, who had not held the office of Vice President, and whose service ended before 1979. Priority was also given to those not already represented in some fashion in the Capitol or Senate office buildings.
With the assistance of the Senate Historical Office, the Senate Commission on Art narrowed the roughly 1,500 eligible names for consideration down to 20 and finally to two, said Senate Historian Richard Baker. Under an unwritten understanding, one Democrat and one Republican would be honored. The 18 runners-up were not publicized.
Baker noted that both Vandenberg and Wagner were also among a list of 15 additional Senators included in the Kennedy committee’s original report for potential consideration “at some future date.”
The Senate Commission on Art selected the Nashville-based artist Michael Shane Neal to paint Vandenberg and chose the New York-based artist Steven Polson to paint Wagner.
Once work began, an advisory board and the commission closely monitored the progress of the portraits, which were painted from photographs.
“Each time they were at different stages we had them send slides or transparencies of the image, which we then enlarged … and put a mock-up up,” Skvarla said.
The completed portraits were then cut into the round medallion shape, backed with synthetic canvas, and glued to the wall, she said.
Wagner, who served in the Senate from 1927 to 1949, first came to prominence when he chaired the New York Assembly committee that investigated the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, an event that precipitated greater workplace oversight and safety reforms. Wagner went on to serve on the New York Supreme Court before being elected to the Senate in 1926.
“Wagner was considered by the Kennedy committee,” Baker said. “The problem was his son was mayor of New York [at the time] and had an active political career going.”
In the midst of the Depression, Wagner, a key ally of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the future chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee, authored the 1935 Social Security Act, which created pensions for the elderly, and the National Labor Relations Act (often referred to as the Wagner Act), which guaranteed labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. Baker dubbed these two pieces of legislation “towering, landmark foundation stones of the New Deal.”
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), speaking at the unveiling ceremony, said that Wagner “truly changed America as we know it.” Dodd was a close friend of Sen. Wagner’s late son, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner.
“He looked around and saw there were things that needed to be reformed,” added Helene Wagner, the deceased Senator’s great niece, who attended the ceremony on behalf of Wagner’s grandson, Duncan Wagner.
Wagner said that her self-effacing great uncle, who retired from the Senate in June 1949 due to ill health, would “have been shocked” to see his image permanently memorialized on the Senate Reception Room walls.
“He was a behind-the-scenes type of person,” she said, adding that if he were alive today his focus would be on “health care” and “protecting the working man.”
Meanwhile, Vandenberg, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was best known for his accomplishments in international relations. He is credited for coining the phrase “Politics stops at the water’s edge.”
In announcing his conversion to internationalism in a dramatic January 1945 Senate “speech heard round the world,” the one-time isolationist endorsed the formation of the United Nations. During a tenure at the helm of the foreign relations panel from 1947 to 1949, Vandenberg was influential in rallying bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who called Vandenberg “a true titan of the Senate,” emphasized his ability to broker compromises “that often saved trapped pieces of legislation.”
“He was really into unity and having the world at peace,” said Barbara Pfeiffer, a granddaughter of Vandenberg who took the train from Camden, N.J., to be present Tuesday. “If he were living today, he could really help with the bipartisan effort. … I really hope his image will help be a presence in the Senate.”
Pfeiffer added that although her memories of her grandfather were limited to visiting him in his hospital when he was dying of bone cancer, her mother, Elizabeth Vandenberg Sands, instilled in her “his sense of justice.”
“There was no way any of us could ever be exempt from any rule or law … just because we knew someone in high office,” she said.
When the idea for the portrait series of revered Senators was first proposed by then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) in 1955, he did it partly as a “morale booster” for the Senate, which had censured Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) for his anti-Communist zealotry the previous year.
“LBJ kind of wanted the Senators to be proud of being Senators,” Baker said, adding that only a heart attack that summer had kept Johnson from chairing the selection panel himself.
In all, 160 scholars and even former President Harry Truman offered advice to the Kennedy committee. However, the scholars’ top pick, Sen. George Norris (R-Neb.), was ultimately rejected because the two Nebraska Senators at the time “threatened to filibuster” if he were to be selected, Baker said.
Baker said it was important for significant time to pass before selecting Senators worthy of consideration, in order to ensure that history, not contemporary passions, determined the worth of their accomplishments.
For instance, Baker noted that La Follette’s 1917 “Free Speech in Time of War” stemwinder, which effectively said the United States “had no business being in World War I,” almost led to his ejection from that chamber.
“There was talk of censuring him and expelling him from the Senate,” said Baker. “Forty years later they selected him to be one of the outstanding Senators of all time.”
Baker said the “famous seven” would likely expand over the years, although probably not in the lifetimes of many of the Senate’s current members.
“I do hope they will wait for another 50 years,” Baker said.