White House Portrait Unveiling Ceremony

I was recently invited to The White House to attend the unveiling of the official portraits of President and Mrs. Obama.

The National Museum of American History

Prior to the event I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  It is one of my favorite museums in D.C.  The Smithsonian does an outstanding job with the nation’s museums.  They are all free, because of Smithson’s original gift.  The museum and its exhibits were renovated since we lived in D. C.  What impressed me most was the way the museum had integrated video into each exhibit.  Diane and I often watch History Channel or Smithsonian programming on television.  For each exhibit, they had an edited segment of the History Channel, edited for the specific exhibit, which provided great context and visualization for the exhibit.

I was overwhelmed with pride in being an American, the story of how we got to where we are, the great benevolence we have done in the world (and some bad too), and the principles that unite us.  It seemed to me we ought to have a mandatory tour of the museum for all politicians just like I required new P&G employees to go through our P&G museum to get acculturated to our Company.

Visiting The White House

Following my visit to the National Museum of American History I walked back to The White House.  We were instructed to enter at the Hamilton Place and 15th Street entrance.  This is the normal Visitor’s Entrance.  It goes into the East Wing, the First Lady’s Wing.  Mrs. Obama as First Lady changed the rules at The White House, and photos are now encouraged.  Previously, photos were not allowed so I took a number of pictures of the ceremony.

Presidents First Ladies Portraits Move September 7, 2022 - 1

From the East Wing we were ushered by the military aides into the East Room, the room of most of the ceremonies.  Name cards were on our chairs, and we sat in protocol order—that is the order of Presidential Succession.  This goes by the order in which one’s Department was established.  VA was established during President Reagan and Bush’s time, so it is rather late and low on the succession list.  It was great for me to see so many of my Cabinet colleagues.  We all caught up on our activities since office.  I sat near Secretary Julian Castro (HUD), Secretary Sylvia Burwell (OMB and HHS), Bill Daley (Chief of Staff), Shawn Donovan (OMB), Denis McDonough (Chief of Staff and VA), James Clapper (DNI), and more.

President Joe Biden

The ceremony was inspiring.  If you are able to view a video of it, it will restore your faith in our democracy.  President Biden began.  He talked about how much his friendship with President Obama meant to him, President Obama’s strong character and values, and how much he learned over his eight years of being Vice President under Obama.  He nearly broke down when he spoke about President and First Lady Obama’s care for Jill and him when Beau got cancer, and President Obama’s eulogy at Beau’s funeral.  I was there.  Most of us who were there were also near tears.

President Biden Portrait September 7, 2022 - 1

President Barack Obama

President Obama and First Lady Michelle unveiled their portraits.  The President talked as he often does about the Presidency being a relay race, that each President does the best they can when in office, but inevitably leaves some things unfinished.  He talked about how the office is bigger than the individual who is in it.  He was very humble.  He described the artist who painted the portrait, and made fun of himself, i.e. he painted realistically, despite my request, he didn’t hide my big ears.  He also joked that he was disappointed none of us named our children or grandchildren Barack.  His speech was inspiring.

President Obama Portrait September 7, 2022 - 1

First Lady Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle then spoke.  She is incredibly articulate (Harvard Law School graduate).  Both are great speakers.  She talked about how she grew up on the South Side of Chicago, her Dad was a pump operator, and how unlikely it was for her and Barack to live in The White House, let alone have their portraits hang there.  She hoped that their portraits would say to all who see them that it is possible for anyone to accomplish anything in the U.S.

First Lady Michelle Obama September 7, 2022 - 1

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden then spoke.  She also talked like the President about what the Obama’s meant to them personally.  She talked a lot about family.  They melded over those eight years together as two families into one.  Jill then invited us all into the State Dining Room for a reception.  Both Presidents and First Ladies met with those presence during the reception.  I probably talked the longest with President Biden.  Ernie Munoz and I talked with the President.  Ernie was Secretary of Energy under Obama, and the lead negotiator on the Iran Nuclear Deal.  Ernie is a Professor at MIT.  After office he went back to MIT.  We used to joke that Ernie was negotiating with his Iranian students from MIT.  Ernie was a big help to me.  As part of the Cancer Moon Shot, which then Vice President Biden led, we used Department of Energy computing power to map the genome of the million Veterans who donated blood samples to help us understand how gene mutation created disease.

First Lady Jill Biden September 7, 2022 - 1

As I was leaving I could see that The White House Staff had already hung the portraits.  President Obama’s portrait went in the main entry hall near the North Portico.  The staff generally hangs the portraits in order from most current past President to the oldest former President.  As you know, Diane and I were honored with the unveiling of my portrait which now hangs in the main entry hall of the VA.  First Lady Michelle’s portrait is hanging on the lower level, where the First Ladies’ portraits hang, right as you descend the stairs from the main hall.

First Lady Michelle Obama Portrait Placement September 7, 2022 - 1

President Obama’s Pending Second Memoir

One thing I learned from Shaun Donovan is that President Obama has not yet started the second edition of his memoir, A Promised Land.  Diane and I really enjoyed listening to his first book on our many trips.  He reads the audio version, which makes it even more meaningful.  But it ends as I recall after the first term.  We are eager for the rest of the story.  The first volume is a terrific lesson in leadership and how government works.

President Obama Portrait Placement September 7, 2022 - 1

Meeting Old Friends

After the event I left The White House and took a car to Washington Reagan Airport.  When I went to the gate, I found a Cincinnati contingent of politicians and business leaders, many of whom I knew from my time at P&G.  They had been to the Old Executive Office Building to meet with White House officials, but had not been to the ceremony, so they were eager to hear about it and see my pictures.  The group included businessman and friend Steve Hightower, Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece, Cincinnati Mayor and former P&G employee (he was a Counsel in our Legal Department) Aftab Pureval, and State Representative Eric Kearney.  I enjoyed seeing them all.  I had worked with them when I was CEO of P&G as well as when I led the Cultural Facilities Task Force in Cincinnati.

FC Cincinnati in Contention

While traveling home I watched FC Cincinnati tie New York City Football Club in Major League Soccer action in New York City, 1 to 1.  This brought us back into the last playoff spot, seventh place in our division.  We need to keep gathering points to be in contention!

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