Two presidential portraits: one on canvass, the other a dirty deed

Former US President Barack Obama gestures to his portrait �at the �National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC (Picture: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)
Former US President Barack Obama gestures to his portrait �at the �National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC (Picture: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)
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In Washington DC, Barack Obama’s portrait is treated reverentially, while the sabotaging of attempts by a Republican senator to protect the Trump-Russia probe paints a picture of the current President, writes Susan Dalgety.

He threw himself on to the seat in front of us, his cobalt blue felt hat resplendent on his blonde wig, his eyes hidden behind Jackie O sunglasses.

“Oh. My. God. White. People. On. The. Train!” he exclaimed.

“Is he your security guard?” he asked in a stage whisper, pointing vaguely in the direction of the thirty-something African American sitting across the aisle, elegant in his business suit and overcoat.

“No,” I laughed. “You’ve had a good day,” I added, as he poured the last of his cheap vodka down his eager mouth.

“Aaargh,” he said, wiping his lips. “Do you like my hat? Fifteen dollars in a vintage shop. I got a red one too,” he slurred, thrusting a scarlet bonnet in my face. “Which one should I wear?” he demanded.

“Oh, the blue one, it matches your golf jumper.”

He suddenly noticed my husband, and leant over, coyly, and whispered to him, in what he must have assumed was his most seductive tone, “Can I touch your nose?”

Welcome to Washington DC. Arguably, still the world’s most powerful city. It had seemed less exciting as we sat in the Senate gallery earlier in the day, watching America’s finest, its 100 senators, vote on the Coast Guards Reauthorisation Bill.

No electronic voting system in this august chamber. Senators trickled in, approached the clerks to record their vote with a mumbled “aye” or “nay”, then slouched back out again. I have enjoyed more exciting meetings of Edinburgh City Council’s sub-committee on statutory notice appeals.

Then, in a room empty but for a few clerks, some eager pages and a trio of senators, the senior senator for Arizona got to his feet.

Jeff Flake is a bit of a maverick, as political commentators are wont to describe politicians who don’t quite fit their party stereotype.

It was he who, almost, stopped Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court, before party loyalty kicked in and he voted in favour of the nomination.

But he dislikes Donald Trump so much that, when he decided to stand down from the political front line at the end of this session, he cited the President’s behaviour as the main reason for his departure.

In his retirement speech, he criticised the Trump administration for its “casual undermining of our democratic ideals” as well as its “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behaviour.

“I love this institution. I’m not leaving because I’m sour on the Senate or Congress,” he went on. “I’m deeply saddened to leave it.”

In a last stand worthy of General Custer, he made a final desperate attempt on Wednesday to protect the Mueller inquiry into Russian collusion from Trump and his new, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.

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Flake and his best friend, Democrat Chris Coons, had previously drafted a bi-partisan bill that would safeguard Mueller. It was time to put it to the vote, before Flake left Washington for good.

But before he could argue a single point, an old man walked, very stiffly, into the chamber and took his seat at the front.

Republican Mitch McConnell is the majority leader of the Senate and probably the most powerful man in Washington. One word from him can stop a President dead in his tracks or, as it transpired, a bi-partisan bill.

“Is there objection?” asked the Presiding Officer, as Flake requested the unanimous consent that would allow the bill to be considered.

McConnell looked up from his iPhone. “I object,” with the air of man used to getting his own way.

“Objection is heard,” announced the Presiding Officer, and with that McConnell got slowly out of his chair and, like the ageing turtle he so resembles, crawled back to his office, satisfied no doubt by today’s dirty deed.

Flake and Coons went on to argue their case with muted passion, supported by the man who would be President, Democrat superstar Senator Cory Booker, but their heartfelt pleas were in vain. McConnell had spoken.

Undeterred, Flake made one last try to protect Mueller, and the country, from Trump’s worst instincts.

“I will not vote to advance any of the 21 judicial nominees pending in the Judiciary Committee, or vote to confirm the 32 judges awaiting confirmation on the Senate floor until S.2644 (the bill) is brought to the full Senate for a vote,” he announced quietly, before sitting down.

His threat to stop Trump from packing the courts with right-wing judges may not work, but it will certainly irritate an already angry and seemingly terrified President.

Deep from his bedroom bunker in the White House, Trump went back on the attack against Robert Mueller on Thursday morning, furiously tweeting that the probe is, “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!”

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It is hard to imagine Trump’s portrait hanging alongside those of great Presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy, but one day his likeness will grace the American Presidents exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery.

Who will dare paint him? Norman Rockwell, the popular artist who joyously captured everyday America over five decades, was the unlikely choice to do Richard Nixon’s portrait.

He said that Nixon’s personality was “troublesomely elusive”, so took the easy way out and chose to flatter the only President yet to resign with a portrait worthy of a chocolate box.

Obama’s portrait was surprising, not for its vibrant execution, or even the size of his hands (HUGE), but by the reverence with which it is treated.

It hangs behind a black velvet rope, and people approach it as if it were a shrine. Young, old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, all stand in front of their President quietly for a few moments, remembering a time, not so long ago, when the leader of the free world shrugged off rain with a smile and a carefully crafted phrase.

After taking an obligatory snap with their phone, they invariably turn to the usher, and ask, “where’s Michelle?”

Michelle is upstairs. As I approached the room where her portrait was on display, I heard a southern voice call, “Marsha, Marsha, take our picture with Michelle.”

Four late middle-aged white women, dressed for comfort rather than to impress, grinned widely in front of the former First Lady as Marsha snapped away.

Amy Sherald, the artist, says that Michelle Obama is someone “women can relate to – no matter what shape, size, race or colour. We see our best selves in her.”

Which begs the question, what does America see when it looks at Donald Trump?