Slate's Politics: Political Status and Photo Walls

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If you're a Washington power broker, your status is symbolized by the photographs decorating your office wall: those with you standing next to congressmen, cabinet officers or even the president. Madeleine Brand discusses so-called "glory walls" with John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, from temples to Tinsel Town, the strange Hollywood journey of Indian hair, we will have that story.

BRAND: But first, in Washington, as the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, more than a thousand words have been spilled recently over a few photos that few people have seen. They're photos of President Bush meeting with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The President has refused to make them public, and he explained why at his news conference yesterday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I had my picture taken with him, evidently. Uh, I've had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that, you know, I'm, I'm a friend with him, or know him very well. Uh, I've had my picture taken with you.

(Soudbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Wait a minute.

President BUSH: At holiday parties.

BRAND: Indeed, on thousands of walls around Washington and across the country, are pictures of people with the president. It's a coveted souvenier of any encounter with the chief executive, and it's often placed on what's known as a me wall, or a glory wall. John Dickerson, chief correcspondant for the online magazine Slate, has written a guide to Washington glory walls, and he joins us now. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Author and Chief Corrrespondant, Slate Magazine): Hi.

BRAND: So, describe one of these glory walls. What are they?

Mr. DICKERSON: As you describe them, they're in the homes of, or offices of Washington dwellers, and they're pictures of the owner of the picture with some famous person, and depending on how powerful you are, your glory wall is either very large, or sort of small and unimpressive.

BRAND: And I suppose you want them in a place where people will see them.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, that's right. It depends on who you are. If you're a lobbyist, you want it in your office so that clients will come in and notice that you hang out with big and important people. If you're a socialite, or somebody who has force in the Washington social scene, you want it in your house. And, usually, the altar for the pictures is the piano in Washington, and this has been the case for at least 40 or 50 years. Gore Vidal actually writes about it in his book, Washington, D.C.

BRAND: The piano.

Mr. DICKERSON: Yes, he, the way he writes about it is, the altar where these pictures are displayed of the owners of the house with the powerful in Washington, so that nobody who comes over can mistake the power of the person who's holding the party.

BRAND: So, there is hierarchy, I understand, of these photographs. Can you describe it?

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. If you're pictured with the president, the bottom, the most unimpressive picture is one of these holiday party pictures that he mentioned. He stands stationary in front of the fireplace, a long line of people comes by, you shake his hand, the picture is taken, and off you go, and the next person comes in. Next in line is a meeting, say, with the president in a smaller group, where he shakes your hand, and a White House photographer takes a picture. But the really special pictures are either you with the president in your own home, or one with the president where you're both in casual clothing. That's the real trick, because it shows that you hang out with him when he's off the clock, when he's just relaxing, and then you can claim you're a friend, because you don't have a tie on.

BRAND: So, clearing brush. That would be at the top of the hierarchy.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. With this president, if you're clearing brush, that's very high, also. Going on a bike ride with him, and when he was a runner, certainly, doing that with him. Or, fishing on the bass pond he's got, and that he's built a few hundred yards away from his house in Crawford, Texas.

BRAND: And there's one famous photo of Jack Valenti. He was Hollywood's most famous lobbyist, and describe that one.

Mr. DICKERSON: Before Jack Valenti was a lobbyist for the motion picture industry, he worked for Lyndon Johnson, and the most impressive picture on the glory wall is one of you in a historic moment. There is a single picture of Lyndon Johnson takin the oath of office on Air Force One, when they flew back from Dallas, after President Kennedy was assassinated. And Jack Valenti is right off to, on the left-hand side of the picture, staring right at the camera, and though there's all of action, you can't help but notice Jack Valenti. And there he is, and that picture is so famous, and he has a prominent place in it.

BRAND: Well, you know, these photos aren't, as you said earlier, for, I mean, probably a large part of it is for their egos, but they're also currency. They're worth something, right? Especially if you're a lobbyist.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, that's right. And one of the things Jack Abramoff was so good at was blowing up the importance of these pictures. Again, you're with the president for 10 or 15 seconds at most, but once those pictures get out into the real world, people can embellish them in the most extravagant ways, and Jack Abramoff talked about how, you know, it was a sign of how close you were to the president, and how you had sway, and he called you in for consultation, when in fact, you'd probably only said just a few words to the president.

BRAND: So, John, where's your glory wall?

Mr. DICKERSON: My glory wall is hidden in my basement office, and I get to see, and my wife gets to see it, and my children point at it and laugh.

BRAND: Analysis and opinion from John Dickerson, he's chief political correspodent for the online magazine, Slate. Thanks, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

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