You can learn a lot about a person from what they hang on their walls — which is why we’ve been asking Justice Department officials for a glimpse of their offices.
See, department tradition dictates that the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Associate Attorney General, the Solicitor General and assistant attorneys general bedeck their offices with portraits of AGs past.
Typically, the department’s top three or four officials horde the most popular portraits, as is their prerogative, leaving lesser-known likenesses for their subordinates to pick through. (Call it portrait politics.)
We’re honoring this tradition with a series of posts, and our first spotlight falls on Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who took us for spin around her office on Friday.
Kagan, the Justice Department’s No. 4 official, broke with tradition. (We honor that, too.) By the time she received the list of portraits, Attorney General Eric Holder, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli had cut a considerable swath. (Holder, alone, has five portraits adorning his conference room and office.)
“Slim pickings,” Kagan joked.
So she framed the official photo of one of her mentors, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, for whom Kagan clerked, and hung it high on the wall adjacent to her desk. Beyond the obvious historic dimension — the first woman SG paying homage to the first African-American SG — Kagan spoke of Marshall’s passion for the office. Though he came to the job reluctantly, leaving the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Marshall described it as the best he ever had.
It’s fitting, Kagan said, that his photo hangs in the office he most enjoyed.
“I chose TM because he was the best lawyer of the 20th century — an absolutely sterling advocate who did more to advance justice in our country (prior to becoming a Justice!) than anyone else I can think of,” Kagan said in an e-mail, when we first inquired about her office art. “On top of all that, I worked for him, and he was a great boss and mentor. It will be wonderful to have him looking down at me as I try to do this job.”
The original photo was of Marshall’s bust only. Staff at DOJ doctored the image, adding arms and folded hands.
On the wall opposite Kagan’s desk are framed photos of former solicitors general Archibald Cox, Erwin Griswold, and Charles Fried — “the Harvard mafia,” said Kagan, who left her job as dean of HLS for the DOJ.
Cox, who served under President John F. Kennedy and was later tapped as Watergate special prosecutor, was a fixture on the law school faculty until his death in 2004. (Read our recent story here about Nixon-era Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus‘ recollections of the “Saturday Night Massacre” crisis in which Nixon ordered Cox’s firing). Griswold, who served under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, was dean of HLS for 21 years. He died in 1994. And Fried, who served under President Ronald Reagan, is currently a professor there.