“As I Was Saying to the President …’

Washington and the art of the “glory wall.’

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

When I was 12 I had my picture taken with Dirk Benedict, who played Lt. Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica. The kids at school were so jealous. I bragged we’d talked about the show and that Dirk—I called him Dirk—explained to me how he flew his starship. I showed him how I would fire my blaster if I had one.

In reality, Benedict said two things to me: “Sure” and “You’re very welcome.” He stopped long enough for the camera aperture to open and close.

I should have been a lobbyist. According to Time magazine, Jack Abramoff managed to get into at least a half-dozen photos with President George W. Bush. The photographs have not been made public yet, but you can be sure they will be on front pages as soon as they are. They are too compelling not to be. 

Abramoff understood the value of these shots as much as anyone. He earned his fat fees by knowing how to confect hokum from such momentary encounters with the president. In a 2001 e-mail to a lawyer for tribal leader Lovelin Poncho, Abramoff explained how a quick photo could become an asset in his client’s upcoming re-election campaign as chief of Louisiana’s Coushatta Indians. “By all means mention [in the tribal newsletter] that the Chief is being asked to confer with the President and is coming to Washington for this purpose in May,” Abramoff writes. “We’ll definitely have a photo from the opportunity, which he can use.”

The pictures of Abramoff and Bush are politically damaging because they show that the disgraced lobbyist was closer to the White House than officials there have suggested. But just how damaging is hard to tell: Are the photos the meaningless trinkets given out to big contributors? Or are they the meaningful trinkets that are a crucial part of the dance of influence between the White House and the lobbyists it uses to promote its agenda?

Understanding the Abramoff pictures requires investigating the absurd Washington phenomenon known as the “glory wall.” Also called the “wall of fame,” “me wall,” and “ego wall,” the glory wall is where members of the establishment flaunt their connections by displaying photos of themselves with more famous people. Lobbyists have glory walls in the office to impress clients. Staffers have them to impress other staffers. Socialites have their glory walls on the piano. Forty years ago in his novel Washington, D.C., Gore Vidal wrote: “[T]he piano’s essential function was to serve as an altar on which to display in silver frames the household gods: photographs of famous people known to the family.” For aspiring Washingtonians, the glory wall allows you to brag about conversations you never really had with the chief justice and intimacies you never really shared with the president.

What everybody is grasping for is a collection like the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham had or like lawyer E. Barrett Prettyman’s. The truly famous have vast walls with candid photographs of themselves with presidents, jurists, and world leaders, usually with handwritten inscriptions scrawled at the bottom. Famed White House photographer Diana Walker has the most aesthetically pleasing glory wall: Her personal inscriptions are at the bottom of her own stunning photographs. Jack Valenti, a former Lyndon Johnson aide and former superlobbyist for the Motion Picture Association, has perhaps the most impressive photo of proximity to power. In the iconic photograph of Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One after Kennedy’s assassination, Valenti is in the background, staring directly in to the camera.

Which brings us to the glory-wall hierarchy. Certain photos are worth more than others. Take presidential photos, for example. The Valenti photo is at the top: a picture that places you at a world-historical event. Next in prestige: you and the president, in casual clothes. After that: a shot of a president at your house. Below that, you and the president on Air Force One or in the Oval Office. And last: shaking hands with the president at some enormous, impersonal event.

The Abramoff-Bush pics are clearly in the bottom categories. The most potent picture, as described by Time, shows Abramoff, the president, several unidentified people, and a tribal leader in the Old Executive Office Building. Abramoff tried to sell such meetings to his clients as consultations with the president—that Bush was inviting the tribal leaders to Washington to get their views. Hooey. The president’s performance at such meetings is brisk: pleasantries, remarks, handshakes, and he’s out.

Bush doesn’t need to stay long because the events are all about the picture, which is why the pictures are a political problem for the White House. Such pictures are a part of the reward system that help the White House run. White House officials know that when they give Abramoff or other lobbyists and political backers such photographs, they’re going to use those photos out in the real world to claim that they have big-time access to Bush. For giving Abramoff this little bragging right, White House aides put influence in the bank. When they need a medium-level favor from Abramoff or anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, who set up that Abramoff meeting with tribal officials, they can call on them and expect fast action. Lobbyists so banked can be called on to raise money for Bush or other Republicans or to build support for a presidential policy. Bill Clinton used this kind of private access in a similar way, though perhaps even more cynically, offering coffee with the president to big Democratic contributors. 

Another picture shows Bush shaking Abramoff’s hand and bears the president’s signature. I fed pictures like this into an “autopen” machine as a Senate intern; it’s unlikely that the president signed it himself. Abramoff, like the rest of official Washington, would not have pointed that out to his impressed office visitors. Glory-wall handshake pictures can sometimes look silly because if they’re taken at a big event, the president is already looking at the next person whose hand he has to shake. One lobbyist I know displays a picture in which he is supposedly shaking President George H.W. Bush’s hand but it looks more like a street-corner drug deal: No one is looking directly at anyone else; only their hands are touching.

The final three photographs in the collection appear to have been taken in the rapid-fire fashion that is the staple of White House parties and fund-raisers. The president stands in line, and his guests file by for a fast photograph. This is superlow intimacy. President Bush has met my wife four times under such circumstances at the White House Christmas party for the press. He wouldn’t know her if she brained him with her laptop. Me, he would know. I’ve interviewed him in casual clothes, on Air Force One, and in the Oval Office. Honest. Just look at my glory wall. (It’s in our basement. Really.)