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Text for President Bush's Presidential Portrait Changed To Reflect Reality-Based History

02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) dashed off a note to the National Portrait Gallery to raise an objection about the new presidential portrait of George W. Bush, contesting the way that a museum historian had framed the Bush presidency (figuratively speaking). Sen. Sanders objected to a phrase in the wall text describing the portrait and its significance that included the phrase, "the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." In his letter to National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, Sanders wrote:

When President Bush and Vice President Cheney misled our country into the war in Iraq, they certainly cited the attacks on September 11, along with the equally specious claim that Iraq possessed vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The notion, however, that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one "led to" the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked.

The National Portrait Gallery took Sanders's advice under consideration. Apparently the museum meant to suggest a casual, not causal, relationship between 9/11 and Bush's elective war in Iraq and decided to make that clear under the portrait. From a letter from Director Sullivan:

Our label was not intended to imply that there was a causal connection between the attacks that occurred on 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq. Our intention was to remind viewers of the portrait that the listed events were defining episodes in the Bush presidency, within the limited space of an object label. I appreciate your concern, however, about the words "led to." We will revise the label and delete the words "led to."

2009-01-14-bush_portrait_small.jpgSullivan then offered to take Sen. Sanders on a tour of the National Portrait Gallery.

For his part, Sen. Sanders seems pleased with the edit. His office released a statement saying, "I very much appreciate the prompt response from the director and appreciate his willingness to make the change."

The same day the National Portrait Gallery received Sen. Sanders's letter, the museum announced that it had acquired the iconic, hand-finished stencil and collaged acrylic "Hope" painting of President-elect Barack Obama -- the image you've seen everywhere, except in person. The painting, acquired through Washington's Irvine Contemporary Art gallery, was a gift to the museum from D.C.–based art collectors Tony and Heather Podesta. Tony's brother John is the president of the Center for American Progress and co-chair of the transition. The image has proved irresistible to Obama's supporters around the world.

The short explanatory wall text that historians and curators write for artworks is known as the "tombstone text" in museum circles. From one perspective, the original Bush tombstone text was correct: Without 9/11, Bush would not have had the pretense for war with Iraq. But it's fitting that the final symbolic seal on the Bush presidency should be corrected to show that there was never a legitimate case for war. No word, however, on when they're going to wipe that smirk off his face.

The full corrected tombstone text of Bush's portrait is copied below:

George W. Bush born 1946

Forty-third president, 2001–

"The biggest advantage and the biggest handicap I have," George W. Bush frankly admitted, "is my name." The grandson of a United States senator and the eldest son of a president, Bush was a popular governor of Texas who worked successfully with both Republicans and Democrats. In 2000, in an election so close that it required the intervention of the Supreme Court, Bush defeated Al Gore, the vice president during the previous administration. Expecting that the success of his presidency would hinge, as it had when he was governor, on his negotiating skills and ability to solve problems, Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office.

The White House selected Robert Anderson, a Connecticut portraitist and a Yale classmate of the president, to create this painting for the National Portrait Gallery.

Robert Anderson (born 1946)

Oil on canvas, 2008

Gift of:

American Fidelity Foundation
J. Thomas and Stefanie Atherton
William S. and Ann Atherton
Dr. Jon C. and Jane G. Axton
Dr. Lee and Sherry Beasley
Thomas A. Cellucci
A. James Clark
Richard H. Collins
Edward and Kaye Cook
Don and Alice Dahlgren
Mr. and Mrs. James L. Easton
Robert Edmund
Robert and Nancy Payne Ellis
Dr. Tom and Cheryl Hewett
Dr. Dodge and Lori Hill
Pete and Shelley Kourtis
Tom and Judy Love
David L. McCombs
Tom and Brenda McDaniel
Herman and LaDonna Meinders
The Norick Family
Kenneth and Gail Ochs
Robert and Sylvia Slater
Richard L. Thurston
Lew and Myra Ward
Dr. James and Susan Wendelken
Jim and Jill Williams