Just days into the job, Speaker Paul D. Ryan has now made two decisions that deliver a powerful signal about how he’ll be the institutional steward of the House.
First, by declaring he’ll keep sleeping in his office, and now by having J. Dennis Hastert’s ceremonial portrait carted off to oblivion, Ryan is sending a clear message about his priorities: Trying for a short-term boost in the abysmal reputation of Congress — by using symbolic gestures that are easy for the electorate to understand — is more important than shielding the long-term reputation and historical stature of the legislative branch.
Public sentiment has long seemed solidly in favor of permitting lawmakers to use their taxpayer-funded work spaces as rent-free apartments. So Ryan’s frequent, “I just work here, I don’t live here,” explanation is likely to triumph over the countervailing view — that lawmakers walking the halls in their pajamas a few nights a week don’t do much to elevate the dignity of their profession.
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It may be a closer call when it comes to how Americans view the Capitol’s role in embodying, reflecting and displaying the American story. As a civic shrine, should it be a warts-and-all memorialization of the complexities of the democratic experiment — and the complex people who have run that process for two centuries? Or, as a museum, should its lawmaker directors feel at liberty to hide parts of the past that don’t fit their idealized narrative?
Ryan has called that question with his decision to remove the portrait of Hastert from the Speaker’s Lobby days after the Illinoisan who was speaker from 1999 through 2006 admitted to orchestrating a hush-money scheme.
In copping to a single count of evading federal banking rules, Hastert signed a plea agreement acknowledging he sought to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed victim of unspecified “misconduct” during his years as a high school wrestling coach.
But as his fellow Republicans are painfully aware, many news organizations have reported the money was to buy a man’s silence about being sexually abused. And it’s the suspicion that Hastert has a gay pedophile past — which is now unlikely to ever be confirmed or rebutted in any official venue — was almost certainly what prompted Ryan’s curatorial aggressiveness.
His press shop would say only that the new speaker, with everything else on his plate, took time within days to conclude “it was appropriate to rotate in a different portrait” to the prominent spot where Hastert’s had hung since its unveiling six years ago. (The replacement may have special meaning for Ryan: Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, speaker from 1919 to 1925, was a compromise GOP candidate after a period of House turmoil and the last person before now elected to the top job from outside the party leadership hierarchy.)
Other than John A. Boehner, who’s been out of office less than a week, Hastert is now the only former GOP speaker since 1883 whose visage is missing from the ornately appointed lounge behind the rostrum. Canvasses depicting eight Democratic speakers from the past century also adorn the room, a prime gathering spot for rank-and-file lawmakers and the main place they interact with the press. (The exceptions are Nancy Pelosi, because she’s still in office, and a pair who died after brief and unmemorable stints during the New Deal.)
The adjacent corridors and stairwells feature oils of almost all the others, part of a collection started before the Civil War and maintained with taxpayer dollars for the past century. But the Hastert painting, which cost $35,000, is nowhere to be found.
If the longest-serving Republican speaker — who captained some of his party’s biggest legislative triumphs in the 21stcentury — can be made to disappear overnight because of unconfirmed, uncomfortable truths about his behavior decades before arriving in Congress, what standard should be applied to other congressional leaders with checkered pasts?
To cite just two recent examples, Jim Wright remains the only speaker forced to resign because of his questionable congressional ethics, and Newt Gingrich carried on an extramarital affair with a committee staffer when he was leading the morality impeachment drive against President Bill Clinton.
Maybe their portraits should join those replaced with whitewash in the Speaker’s Lobby. Or maybe it’s preferable for both the House and the country if our lawmakers are reminded daily about the potential pitfalls — even for the most politically gifted — of even-inconsequential shady financial dealings and even-consensual power relationships.
The other side of the Capitol presents more obvious airbrushing opportunities among the vice presidential busts that form the Senate’s oldest continuing art collection. The statues of both Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew adjacent to the GOP cloakroom are either inappropriate homages to political corruption, or silent sentinels of warning to all who pass by.
The niches in the northwest corner of the chamber’s balcony feature marble renderings of John C. Calhoun, who worked to preserve slavery by arguing states were free to disregard federal law, and Aaron Burr, who worked to avenge his reputation by killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. There is certainly disdain, but also political learning, emanating from both their 19th century lives.
When a national debate briefly flared this summer over whether the Confederate battle flag symbolized racial oppression or regional pride, Boehner promised a thorough examination of the banner’s iconography all over the Hill. There’s no evidence it got off the ground.
Now his successor has an opening to take that unfinished business and turn it into a serious discussion of an expanded topic. Not only should the Capitol’s contents reflect our nuanced past or a sanitized reality, but also should the current occupants really have much say in the matter?