February 12, 2018
Well, good morning, everybody. It is wonderful to see all of you. How about that? That’s pretty sharp.
It is my great honor to be here and I want to thank Secretary Skorton and Kim for your outstanding leadership as a couple of the crown jewels of American life and your extraordinary stewardship. I want to thank everybody who was here. Michelle and I are so grateful for the friends and family and former staff and current staff who have taken the time to be here and honor us in this way and soak in the extraordinary art that we’re seeing here. It means so much to us and I hope you’re aware of that. We miss you guys and... We miss you guys and we miss the way those who worked with us on this incredible journey carried yourselves and worked so hard to make this country a better place.
Amy, I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love. Special shout-out to my man, Joe Biden. An even more special shout-out to my mother-in-law, who, in addition…who, in addition to providing the hotness genes, also has been such an extraordinary rock and foundation stone for our family and we are so, so grateful to her. We love her so much.
Like Michelle, I have never had a portrait done of myself. I mean, the Hope poster by Shep was cool, but I didn’t sit for it. Nobody in my family tree, as far as I can tell, had a portrait done. I do have my high school yearbook picture, which is no great shakes. And so, when I heard that this was part of the tradition, I didn’t quite know what to do. Michelle and I were somewhat confused. We were lucky to have some extraordinary friends and people with exquisite taste – Bill Allman, Thelma Golden, and Michael Smith, who gave us the assist and helped us to consider a whole range of artists and we had an immediate connection with the two artists that are sitting here today.
I think it’s fair to say that Kehinde and I bonded, maybe not in the same way, the soul sister girl, you know, thing. We shook hands, we were, yeah, we had a nice conversation. He and I make different sartorial decisions, but what we did find was that we had certain things in common. Both of us had American mothers who raised us with extraordinary love and support, both of us had African fathers who had been absent from our lives and, in some ways, our journeys involved searching for them and figuring out what that meant. I ended up writing about that journey and channeling it into the work that I did because I cannot paint. I’m sure that Kehinde’s journey reflected some of those feelings in his art.
But what I was always struck by, whenever I saw his portraits, was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege and the way that he would take extraordinary care and precision and vision in recognizing the beauty and the grace and the dignity of people who are so often invisible in our lives and put them on a grand stage on a grand scale and…and force us to look and see them in ways that so often they were not – the people that Michelle referred to, people in our families, people who helped to build this country, people who helped to build this capital, people who – to this day – are making sure that this place is clean at night and serving food and taking out the garbage and doing all the other stuff that makes this country work, so often, out of sight and out of mind. Kehinde lifted them up and gave them a platform and said they belonged at the center of American life. And that was something that moved me deeply because, in my small way, that’s part of what I believe politics should be about – is not simply celebrating the high and the mighty, expecting that the country unfolds from the top down, but rather that it comes from the bottom up, families all across America who are…who are working hard and doing their best and passing on the wisdom and resilience and stories to their children in the hopes that their lives will be a little bit better.
And so I was extraordinarily excited about working with Kehinde and, let’s face it, Kehinde, relative to Amy, was working at a disadvantage because his subject was less becoming; not as fly. And I want…I want to say that it was, although Michelle always used to joke, I am not somebody who’s a great subject. I don’t like posing, I get impatient, I look at my watch, I think, “This must be done. One of those pictures must have worked. Why has this taken so long?” So it’s…it’s pretty torturous trying to just take a picture of me much less paint a portrait. I will say that working with Kehinde was a great joy and he and his team made it easy.
Kehinde, in the tradition of a lot of great artists, actually cared to hear how I thought about it before doing exactly what he intended to do. I mean, there were a number of issues that we were trying to negotiate. I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears; struck out on that as well. Maybe the one area where there were some concessions was, as I said before, Kehinde’s art often takes ordinary people and elevates them, lifts them up and…and puts them in these fairly elaborate settings. And so his initial impulse maybe, in the work, was to also elevate me and put me in these settings with partridges and scepters, thrones and chifforobes and mounting me on horses. And I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We’ve got to bring it down just a touch and that’s what he did.
But, you know, it’s hard to, obviously, judge something that is a portrait of you, but what I can say unequivocally is that I am in awe of Kehinde’s gifts and what he and Amy have given to this country and to the world and we are both very grateful to have been the subject of their attention for this brief moment.
So, Mr. Kehinde Wiley.