When his portrait is hung this week in the Capitol, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) hopes that people remember him for being fair with both parties during his tenure as Speaker of the House.
Hastert had a difficult job in his eight years, starting from the moment he took over for Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who led one of the most politically divided chambers. He helped get Congress and the nation back on track after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he presided over one of the most unified GOP conferences in modern history, which passed much of President Bush’s agenda without significant dissent. In his final year, he withstood pressure to resign over Republican scandals that ultimately contributed to his party losing power in the 2006 midterm elections.
Hastert acknowledged that there’s a partisan aspect to the position. But he believes the Speaker should serve the entire House, a sentiment he kept in mind when deciding how he should look in his portrait.
“The Speaker should never, at least from my point of view, ever lose the perception that you’re there to serve the whole body of the House, not just one party,” Hastert said in an interview with The Hill. “So to make sure that there’s transparency, that the rights are preserved on both sides of the aisle — I think that’s very, very important.”
Speaker portraits are a time-honored tradition on Capitol Hill. They help give a face to Congress, one former Speaker said, and are a rich method of preserving the legislative body’s history, congressional art curators said. They take years to plan and are meticulously cared for once they’re hung from the Capitol’s walls.
On Tuesday, Hastert’s will be the 51st portrait added to the collection, which goes back to the inaugural Congress in 1789, when Pennsylvania’s Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg served as the first Speaker. Portraits have evolved significantly since then, when they typically consisted of small, oval, crayon-and-paper-like renderings. The first oil portrait to enter the collection was that of Henry Clay in 1852. Several decades later, in 1910, a House resolution stipulated that all former Speakers have an artist commissioned to paint an oil portrait of them. Since then, former Speakers have been involved in choosing the artist, style and content of their portrait.
In Hastert’s painting, key House fixtures, including the silver inkstand, the House mace, the gavel, the Speaker’s chair and rostrum are all present for the first time in portrait history. All are reflective, he says, of the way he led during his tenure.
“I tried to be fair to all sides, and we did that with a very narrow margin — sometimes a margin of only five votes,” Hastert said.
Laurel Boeck, the artist behind Hastert’s portrait, said getting to know the former Speaker has been one of the most rewarding parts of painting his portrait. Although Hastert did not want to smile in the picture, she thinks his warmth comes through.
“He wanted it to be as if he was thinking,” Boeck said. “It’s been a goal of mine, whoever I paint — I really dig in and capture that person and that moment.”
A portrait’s composition and framing takes one full year for Boeck, who, after sketching and photographing poses, created Hastert’s portrait in her studio in New York. She is looking forward to seeing the portrait in new lighting and a new atmosphere.
“It’s like new to see it unveiled, and you have him standing next to it to see if you have the likeness down,” she said.
Before Hastert, the last Speaker’s portrait to be unveiled in the collection was Gingrich’s. Gingrich said in an interview with The Hill that the unveiling ceremony offers the opportunity to reunite with colleagues and supporters and reflect upon your time as Speaker.
“Denny has a lot to be proud of,” Gingrich said. “I think for his entire family, it’s a very meaningful moment, and it’s a great moment when all of your friends and supporters come back. So you’re sort of re-bonded with the people who made you Speaker.”
That bond, Gingrich said, is a fundamental part of the collection, one that transcends the ideological chasms of past or present.
“There’s a continuity — whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Whig, Federalist, Jeffersonian, whether you are liberal, conservative — there’s a continuity now for over 200 years of people who’ve served as the third-ranking elected constitutional officer and who represented the people of the United States in what I do believe is the ‘People’s House,’ ” he said. “I think the portraits are part of that human bonding, that organic commitment to the community of the Congress, which I think is a key part of how we preserve our freedom.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been an advocate of preserving the House’s history and has worked with the House Office of History and Preservation in publishing informational pamphlets and conserving older portraits in the collection.
Farar Elliott, curator and chief of the House’s History and Preservation Office, said throughout time, Speaker portraits have dramatically evolved in terms of style and symbolism. Speaker Joe Cannon’s, she says, is an early example of a simple and strict artistic approach.
“He’s sitting in a chair, and he’s looking directly out at the visitor; you don’t see much background,” Elliott said. “As you move through the 20th century, you can start to see portraits where the subject, the Speaker, is more a part of the institution and part of the nation.”
The later part of the 20th century brought even more artistic progression. In 1998 and 2000, respectively, Tom Foley’s and Gingrich’s were the first portraits to explore the outdoors.
“That’s certainly very illustrative of the Speakership, and the House itself, something that is very much a part of the wider world,” Elliott said.
“One of the most important things is putting a human face on the House of Representatives in any way we can,” she said.
Hastert insists that while he has found his place in the annals of legislative history, his job as Speaker was not about him or his party, but about Congress and the nation as a whole.
“The U.S. House is a unique institution in the whole world; other Speakers, the British Speaker, Australian Speaker, don’t really have the power that the U.S. Speaker has,” he said. “Everything goes through the Speaker, so it is really a very, very powerful position, but it’s a position of the whole Congress.”
About the portrait
Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) portrait marks the first time the traditional symbols of Speaker authority are represented in a Speaker portrait. Hastert’s portrait was painted by Laurel Boeck, one of only seven women to have painted Speaker portraits.
According to Farar Elliott of the House Office of History and Preservation, the symbols that appear in Hastert’s portrait are:
* The Speaker’s gavel: A tool of authority that has a long association with the House.
* The House mace: the symbol of authority in the House, by custom present whenever the House is in session. The British stole the original mace in 1814; the current mace dates back to 1841. An eagle on the globe surmounts the 13 ebony rods with silver straps.
* The rostrum: the raised platform where the Speaker presides over the chamber. In his portrait, Hastert is standing at the rostrum. This is the first time the Speaker has been portrayed standing at the rostrum in an official portrait.
* The silver inkstand: The oldest artifact in the House chamber, it sits atop the Speaker’s rostrum when the House is in session. It has been in continual use since it was created in 1819-21, when the House returned to the newly rebuilt Capitol following its torching by the British in the War of 1812.
* The Speaker’s chair: the chair used every day by the presiding officer. It is also in Hastert’s portrait.