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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Portraits

From Washington Lawyer, September 2006

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorI was in motions court with notes, documents, and marked transcripts, prepared to give a superb argument concerning the right to produce an expert I had neglected to name before the witness deadline date. When the case was called, the clerk announced that opposing counsel had called and reported a serious illness in his family and the motion must be continued.

If you wish to practice law, you must have a tolerance for the unexpected. It serves no purpose to get upset by delays, continuances, misunderstanding, and false starts. You put the file back in the file cabinet and pick up the next one.

I left motions court and dropped in to an adjacent courtroom where a trial was in progress. Here were the lawyers, tense on the inside, but giving the appearance of control on the outside. Here was the judge on the bench alert to evidentiary issues. Here were the litigants, each obsessed with winning the verdict. Here was the bailiff alert to the judge’s wishes. Here was the judge’s law clerk taking notes to be used in conferences with the judge on legal issues. The blackboard was covered with numbers and names. The lawyers were questioning, arguing, objecting.

I never cease to be surprised when I see a trial in progress. I should say I am surprised that I am still surprised. Rather than reach a settlement, the lawyers put in long days of preparation reading the pleadings and organizing the documents. They make back-and-forth phone calls arranging for the attendance of witnesses who do not wish to take time from their own jobs to appear and wait around to be called into a courtroom. The lawyers must decide how to compress in five trial days a jumble of events that took place years ago and that involved agreements, disagreements, contradictory correspondence, and he-said, she-said conversations.

In order to dispel these thoughts from my mind, I decided to undertake an investigation. The National Portrait Gallery, which is a few blocks from the courthouse, has been a haven of retreat for me. A place to hide from the adversary system, its contentions and its Talmudic evidentiary disputes. A place to spend time with people of real consequence and achievement.

The gallery has now reopened after six years of renovations. Will it have the same magic? I am pleased to report that it does.

Portrait painting as we know it today commenced in Europe during the Renaissance. Kings and queens of large and small monarchies used portraits to impress one another. There was a competition among the royals to hire and put up at the palace the gifted portrait painters. These artists traveled from Venice to Spain to Holland. They were well-paid members of the royal household. Royalists, with daughters, sent attractive portraits of the daughters around to kings who had sons in search of a wife whose father could be helpful in forming an alliance.

A good portrait is much more than a photograph. It begins with a likeness, but it then picks up or amends things that metal and glass cannot do. Rembrandt used his self-portraits to tell him who he was at the time he painted each of them.

The restored National Portrait Gallery has set aside special rooms devoted to portraits of each of the American presidents. There you will see Everett Raymond Kinstler’s portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. It is a masterpiece of what in the trade is called chairman-of-the-board style. President Ford looks every bit the chairman of the admissions committee of the best clubs, a Yale man (as President Ford was), the man who controls the votes. The man who is not afraid of any outside independent audit committee challenging his $400 million retirement plan.

The artist, Kinstler, is somebody in his own right. In addition to the Ford portrait, there are two other Kinstlers now on display. There is Katherine Hepburn’s favorite picture of herself, and there is my favorite Kinstler, the portrait of Tom Wolfe.

Wolfe is there in his white suit seated with legs crossed, holding a cane, poised to say a few words about his next book. The portrait comes close to being a caricature without stepping over the line. It is all vitality and showmanship. It is the tops. It is the Tom Wolfe that Tom Wolfe would have painted if he had Kinstler’s superb talent. As you look at it, try counting the number of different shades of off-white Kinstler discovered in that white suit.

The portraits of Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton do not come off. Truman, who was somewhat of a dandy in real life with his big brimmed hat, double-breasted suit, and pocket handkerchief, comes off looking like a high school principal. Clinton’s portrait reveals nothing of this complex person.

Douglas Chandor did the portraits of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. I think it fair to say that Chandor was intimidated by both presidents and the portraits show it. The caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias’s cartoon of FDR’s 1933 inauguration is, in its own way, a wonderful piece of work in which he has caught FDR as Chandor did not.

General George C. Marshall was the man who President Harry Truman said was second only to George Washington in service to his country. His portrait by Thomas E. Stephens gives us a man who is self-assured, composed, somewhat contemplative, and with no trace of arrogance.

There are rooms devoted to writers—Scott and Zelda are there, looking at each other. Augustus John’s portrait of Tallulah Bankhead is back on display. Tallulah said that when her portrait was painted, “I was the toast of London and that was some toast, dahling.”

In the musicians room there is Benny Goodman on clarinet and Louis Armstrong on trumpet. Armstrong no doubt playing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” his opening and closing number

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.