A portrait of a president 8 years ago: When George & Laura hosted Bill & Hillary

When I was writing a book about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency, I tracked down every artist I could find who painted Bill. One of them was Simmie Knox, son of a sharecropper and the first African-American commissioned to paint the official White House portrait of a president. Knox told me about his boyhood on a plantation/farm and the segregated schools he attended.

In June 2004 in the East Room at the Bush White House — like now, the country in the midst of a mean reelection campaign — Knox’s portraits of Bill and Hillary, then U.S. senator from New York, were unveiled. I wrote in my book that President Bush won over the Clintons with his greeting, “Welcome home,” and reminded the assembled that he and his father call each other “41” and “43.” Turing to Clinton, Bush said, “We’re glad you’re here, 42.” That was the start of a thaw that produced a genuine and continuing friendship between 41 and 42. When the then-president mentioned Clinton’s mother, Virginia Kelley, and “the incredible pride” she would have felt that morning — she had died in 1994 — he brought the former president to tears.

ADVERTISEMENT
Knox, now 77, had painted the portraits of Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; the latter recommended him to the Clintons. Knox also told me that he had asked both Clintons “if there are things [they want in their portraits] that they feel that had helped to shape them and make them the person that they are,” and that Bill Clinton — who saw his White House dreams almost die on news that he had dodged the draft — wanted military medallions in his. Hillary wanted her book, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, in hers.

Later I interview Larry King, who mentioned that Bush 43 was “glowingly praising of [Clinton]; I mean really overglowingly. So the next time I saw Bush, I said, 'Why were you so ... ? ... and he looked at me and he said, 'Are you kidding? ... How could you not like Bill Clinton?’ "

Knox told me that getting that commission “changed my entire life.” When he walked out of the White House on that June day in 2004, he said his phone started to ring and kept ringing for the next six months, from 7 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night. At the time I interviewed him, in September 2006, he was finishing a portrait of Oprah Winfrey.