A Portrait of Washington DC

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A Portrait of Washington DC:

We went to see a portrait unveiled, and got to see much more than that--the unveiling of our Capitol's human face

September 14, 2004

Senate Reception Room

My brother-in-law, Michael Shane Neal, of Nashville, TN, was commissioned in 2001 by the U.S. Senate Commission on Art, to paint a portrait of Arthur H. Vandenberg, who served as a Republican Senator from Michigan from 1928-1951. Vandenberg was considered one of the “most outstanding” Senators in our nation’s history, and is one of only seven Senators that have been honored with a permanent portrait in the Senate Reception Room in the U.S. Capitol Building. To learn more about the U.S. Senate I highly recommend that you go to www.senate.gov.

In 1959, the original “famous five” were installed: Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Robert M. La Follette, and Robert A. Taft. The portraits filled the round medallion spaces left vacant by 19th-century Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. On September 14, 2004 two more Senators were finally added: Arthur H. Vandenberg, and Robert F. Wagner (D), of New York.

The family and I had been anticipating for months the day Shane’s artwork would finally be unveiled, and it was hoped that we would get to make the trip to Washington, to see the unveiling, no matter what it took. We did not know exactly what to expect when we got there, but we knew we did not want to miss it. We viewed it as being, perhaps, a once in a life-time opportunity to see what goes on inside of the Capitol Building during an occasion like this.

We had seen the portrait when Shane was still working on it in his studio, and it had been shown on TV, on two of Nashville's local television stations, so we sincerely wanted to see it placed in the Capitol Building, where it would stay presumably for the rest of our lives and beyond.

On August 6, we received in the mail a very official-looking invitation (with gold embossed letters) from the U.S. Capitol Building, to attend the unveiling ceremony September 14. My parents were invited too, so we decided to travel together in one vehicle, and since neither of us had a vehicle large enough to carry five people and luggage, we decided to rent a mini-van at our local Enterprise Rental.

When the day finally came to go on the trip, the weather was pleasant, and the ride in the van was comfortable. We spent the night in a Roanoke, VA motel on the way. I only mention that because Shane’s family (his parents, sister, brother-in-law, and two children) were traveling the same day--in a rented van, like us--and they stayed at the very next motel on the same street that we did. Each had no idea of the others whereabouts!

We arrived in Alexandria, VA the next afternoon at a motel, where we had reservations, located just south of the I-495 Beltway. A couple of hours later, we drove the van into Old Alexandria, the third oldest “Historical District” in the country, to sample some of its 18th and 19th century charm. We parked near the Potomac Harbor, and walked up King Street a couple of blocks. Before we even got started, it seemed, we bumped right into Shane’s family (minus Shane, Melanie, and Mattie, because they flew to D.C. and were currently accessing a rental mini-van). It seemed like such a big coincidence to see the Neals, so we decided to eat together at a restaurant. Wayne (Shane’s dad) phoned Shane and Melanie on his cell phone, and they agreed to drive to Old Alexandria and meet us in a short while.

Once Shane and Melanie arrived (they had guests with them who flew from Nashville also), we all bumped into Shane’s cousin Tiffany and her family of four, who were also in town for the unveiling. To make a long story short--all 21 of us invaded a restaurant on King Street, called “Bugsy’s,” and ate dinner, with very slow service.

The next day—the 14th—we checked out of the motel and drove a short distance to where Shane and Melanie were staying, at the house of some friends of theirs, in a very leafy, and very posh looking neighborhood. Reanna was going to stay there with Mattie Ree while the adults went to the unveiling. We were dressed in suits and nice clothes, and we drove to the Huntingdon Metro station, parked in the garage and rode the Metro into D.C. This was my mother's first ever trip on a Metro.

We rode the Metro to the Gallery Place/Chinatown stop and went to the street above. It was about noon and we were hungry, so we ate lunch at a Chinese Restaurant. After that, we walked down 6th Street about four blocks to Constitution Avenue. The temperature was in the low-eighties, which was warm, but we tried not to hurry because we didn’t want to get hot. My mother couldn’t walk fast, so we stopped to let her rest a couple of times. She really seemed to be enjoying the sights and sounds of D.C.

The most notable buildings we passed along the way were the National Archives, the National Gallery, and the Canadian Embassy. As we approached the Capitol Building, we could see a lot of new construction taking place on the NE corner, where they are building a new welcome center. We walked around to the NE corner entrance, which was a temporary structure, and presented ourselves. We just told them that we were there for the portrait unveiling in the Senate Reception Room and they motioned us along. There was very little protocol. They only asked my father’s name, consulted a guest list, and appointed a Senate intern to escort us upstairs to the Reception Room. I was surprised how easy it was.

When we reached the Reception Room, which dates from 1859, and located adjacent to the Senate floor, it was a sight to behold. Italian artist Constantino Brumidi decorated much of the room with murals in the 1850s through 1870s. Both the Vandenberg and the Wagner portraits were installed in the corners of the south wall, each one over a doorway. The floor was mostly bare for standing, but benches were spaced throughout the room against the walls. A podium and a few chairs for the speakers were at the south end of the room. Melanie, Shane, and the Neals were already there, as well as some members of the Vandenberg and Wagner families, reporters, interns, and various guests. Steve Polson, the artist of Wagner’s portrait, was also there, but I didn’t see any family members with him. The guests were allowed to mingle freely, and just stand where they wanted during the ceremony.

We got there about fifteen minutes before the ceremony began. An intern volunteered to take my picture under the portrait of Vandenberg with my camera. At the last minute, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Shane’s mentor, showed up with his wife. It got more and more crowded as time for the ceremony drew nigh. Senators Byrd (WV) and Lieberman (CT) happened to pass through the room on their way to the Senate floor and did not stay. Senator Hollings (SC) stood near us for the whole ceremony. Then Senator Dodd, of Connecticut, started the ceremony. Actually, Tom Daschle (SD) was on the program to start it, but he was unable to be there. Senator Dodd did a very good job of beginning the ceremony and a lot of reporters crowded in, and C-Span had a big camera on the floor, as well. Senator Stevens (Alaska) was seated in one of the chairs at the front, but his cell phone rang right as Dodd was beginning his speech and he promptly left the room (he came back later, however).

Next, the Senate Archivist (whose name escapes me), spoke about the history behind the idea of honoring a select number of former Senators in the Reception Room. Linda and I stood side-by-side, about a third of the way in the room, near the entrance to the Senate floor. My parents were standing several feet in front of us. At about this point, I glanced over to my right and noticed that Senator Edward Kennedy had slipped into the room, very quietly, and was standing next to Linda to our right. He seemed a little tired and withdrawn. The recent late-night sessions in the Senate had taken a toll on him, no doubt. He stood for a while and then he sat down on the nearest bench for a while, and listened, with his head and eyes bowed down. This was the same bench that my mother and I had placed a couple of personal items on (a small backpack and purse), to "reserve" it, in case mom wanted to sit down during the ceremony. As it turned out, she didn't need to sit down after all.

L-R Sen. Stevens, Sen. Dodd, Polson, Neal, and Sen. Frist

Next, Bill Frist, of Tennessee, took the podium and delivered the closing speech. This was the second time I have heard him speak in public and he is a good communicator. A few minutes into Frist’s, speech, however, Senator Kennedy slipped out almost unnoticed. At the conclusion of the ceremony, there was a lot of picture taking by the press, and I took a few myself of the speakers, and shook Lamar Alexander’s (TN) hand. Then, we were all invited to go upstairs to the office of the Secretary of the Senate, Emily Reynolds (also from TN), for a reception.

A large number of guests went to the reception, but it was mostly the members of the honoree’s families, the artist’s, and their families. Senator Dodd spoke again, a more impromptu speech than before, and the artist’s (Shane and Steven Polson) spoke briefly. Shane did an excellent job, and is always prepared to speak in these situations. Linda and I met Mr. Everett Raymond Kinstler for the first time. He has painted two official White House portraits, for President’s Ford, and Reagan, plus portraits of three other Presidents (Nixon, Carter, and Clinton), and many celebrities (John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Thomas Wolf, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, and many more). We also met some members of the honoree’s families, and the official photographer of the Senate (who took a photo of Shane, Melanie, my parents, Linda and myself). There was a nice array of finger food neatly placed on tables for the guests, and the décor of the room had a lot of Tennessee pictures, and maps, including two very old oil paintings of Andrew Jackson, and Andrew Johnson. The Supreme Court Building was visible from the office windows.

When we decided to leave, on the way back to the elevator, I saw the entrance to the Senate Gallery, and asked an intern if we could go inside the gallery. This was fine, and she insisted on escorting us through the security check and into the gallery, which was the balcony overlooking the Senate Floor. This was very exciting for all of us, especially me, because I used to be a Legislative Recorder for the Tennessee State Legislature (for one year 1989-90). Down on the floor, we could see a lot of Senator’s milling around, talking to one another, but no particular business was being discussed over the PA system. Perhaps it was a break, but we could clearly see Senator’s Lott (MS), Hatch (UT), and the Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, among others. I asked the intern, a very proper looking young lady in her twenties, several questions, and she was fairly knowledgeable about the Senate, but limited in terms of experience. My family and I found out that the Senate staff is very touchy about certain rules, such as not standing in the gallery for more than a moment to be seated and/or to leave, and not going near the edge of the balcony to look down. Whispering was the preferred tone for conversation between people in the gallery, even during breaks. After about fifteen minutes we decided to leave.

Exiting the Capitol Building was fairly straightforward, but surprisingly informal. We could have wandered around quite a bit, if we had wanted, but we decided to head back to Alexandria, to change clothes, and to pick up Reanna. We walked north to Union Station and got on the Metro. On the way, we passed the Senate Library in the Russell Building. Oh, if we’d only had more time! I would love to go in there. The Metro ride to Alexandria was uneventful, but just being on a train is pretty far out compared to our normal routine, and therefore enjoyable.

The trip home to Tennessee went according to plan. Our only regret on the trip was that it was so short. But being as it was right in the midst of the 2004 Presidential Campaign, it couldn’t have come at a better time to see a little bit of the inside of our Capitol and to see real politicians going about their business. Our experience was fairly positive, and I have to admit that it gave my somewhat critical attitude towards politics a little boost, at least for the time being about our Senators. They are real people after all.

As if I needed any proof to that statement, later that night at a motel in Charlottesville, VA, I turned the TV to C-Span, and what did I see? A live telecast of the Senate, still in some sort of session well past 11:00 PM, and everything looked about the same as it had at 5:00 PM; same cast of Senators at work. Remarkable!