Socialist Senator’s Complaint Prompts Smithsonian to Change Plaque on President Bush’s Portrait

By Penny Starr | January 12, 2009 | 7:06 PM EST

A portrait of President George W. Bush by artist Robert Anderson was unveiled Friday at the National Portrait Gallery (Photo by Starr)

( – The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has agreed to change the wording on the plaque accompanying a portrait of President George W. Bush in response to a complaint by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).

Sanders objected to the sign's language because he believed it suggested a linkage between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The plaque reads: “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 were instead marked by a series of catastrophic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office.”

Plaque on portrait of President George W. Bush at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery ( Starr)

Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” wrote a letter to National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan on Jan. 7 complaining about the phrase, “the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."

On Monday, Sullivan wrote back to Sanders, saying that the plaque would be changed.
The letter reads as follows:

Dear Senator Sanders,

Thank you for your letter of January 7, 2009, regarding the label which accompanies the National Portrait Gallery’s recently acquired portrait of George W. Bush.

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 to delete the words “led to.” I would welcome the opportunity to escort you on a personal tour of the National Portrait Gallery, and will call your office in hopes that we can arrange that.

Thank you for your interest in the Smithsonian Institution.


Martin E. Sullivan, director

Sanders indicated that he was grateful to Sullivan for moving so swiftly to change the Bush portrait plaque. “I very much appreciate the prompt response from the director and appreciate his willingness to make the change,” he said in a statement released Monday.
Bethany Bentley, spokeswoman for the National Portrait Gallery, told that the gallery’s staff historians select the wording to be used on the plaques in the American Presidents exhibit and that no other presidential plaque has been challenged or changed.
Sanders ran for several statewide offices in Vermont in the 1970s as a candidate for the socialist Liberty Union Party. He was elected mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1981 and served until 1989.
He was elected to Congress in 1990, becoming “only the third Socialist elected to the House,” according to the New York Times. He was elected to the Senate in 2006 as an Independent.
Sanders voted against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq.