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Why the unveiling of the Obamas’ White House portraits was overdue

Watching the Obamas return to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits was a reminder of how American traditions are supposed to work.


It was 10 years ago when three American presidents joined at the White House for the official unveiling of George W. Bush’s portrait. As regular readers may recall, it was at this same event that Bush told the only joke of his that I ever found amusing.

In the East Room, near a famous portrait of George Washington, the nation’s 43rd president reflected on its history, and the role a former first lady played in rescuing it. “When the British burned the White House ... in 1814, Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W,” Bush said. He then turned his attention to Michelle Obama, pointed to his own portrait, and said, “Now, Michelle, if anything happens, there’s your man.”

It was at this same event that Barack Obama, the incumbent president, said, “We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. We all love this country. We all want America to succeed. We all believe that when it comes to moving this country forward, we have an obligation to pull together.”

Former President Barack Obama kisses former First Lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony to unveil their official White House portraits in the East Room on Sept. 7, 2022.
Former President Barack Obama kisses former First Lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony to unveil their official White House portraits in the East Room on Sept. 7.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

Tradition suggests Obama would return to the White House for a similar event of his own within four years of leaving office. Instead, as NBC News reported, that event was held yesterday, offering the public an opportunity to see the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.

Regardless of party affiliation, sitting presidents typically host their immediate predecessors for the unveiling of their official portraits — which then-President Bill Clinton did for George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush did for Clinton, and Obama did for the younger Bush. Former President Donald Trump did not host an unveiling ceremony during his time in office. There was no official explanation for his lack of such a ceremony for the Obamas.

That’s right, no official explanation. The unofficial explanation is that Trump couldn’t bring himself to tolerate an afternoon of graciousness.

Indeed, NBC News reported in May 2020, “Trump is unconcerned about shunning yet another presidential custom, and he has attacked Obama to an extent no other president has done to a predecessor. Most recently he’s made unfounded accusations that Obama committed an unspecified crime.”

In an interview with the White House Historical Association in 2017, former White House curator Betty Monkman celebrated the modern tradition. “It’s a statement of generosity on [the part of] the current president and first lady,” she explained. “And it’s a very warm, lovely moment.”

That is, it’s supposed to be a statement of generosity and a warm, lovely moment.

Watching yesterday’s ceremony, being reminded of how things are supposed to work, it occurred to me that this same modern custom suggests that the Biden White House would host a similar gathering for Trump sometime before the 2024 elections. And that leads to all sorts of tantalizing questions: Would the Democratic president extend such an invitation? Would Trump accept? What would the Republican say at such an event? Would Trump be a candidate? Would he be out on bail?

At a briefing on Tuesday, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “Would President Biden hold the same ceremony for President Trump should his portraits be done before his first term [ends]?” The presidential spokesperson, apparently anticipating the question, referred reporters to the White House Historical Association, which oversees the process on official portraits.