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Jack Zaleski, Published March 09 2013

Zaleski: USDA portrait an appropriate honor

Some weeks the news tends to the peculiar. It can be depressing, uplifting, ironic or hypocritical (lots of that going around these days), but peculiar wraps ’em all in.

Consider the tempest in a teapot over a portrait of former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer that now hangs in a gallery at United States Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington, D.C. Portraits of ag secretaries going back to the Lincoln administration are there, yet this time questions arose whether the $30,500 expenditure was appropriate given the nation’s allegedly poor financial condition.

Oh, please. Give it up, you fiscal Chicken Littles.

Not only is the portrait appropriate (as are the several that preceded Schafer’s), but the former North Dakota governor picked the artist because he liked a painting the artist did of Teddy Roosevelt in the North Dakota Badlands. A USDA portrait committee approved Schafer’s selection.

Sure enough, when questions arose, Schafer, ever portraying himself as a critic of government spending, said government portraits are “way too expensive …” He would have preferred a “cheaper artist,” he said.

Sheesh. Cheaper artist? Why not a paint-by-the-numbers amateur? Now that’s the way to save a buck.

Let’s get serious. Schafer’s public service record is long and mostly successful. The former two-term governor helped lay the foundation on which North Dakota’s 21st century prosperity is built. He answered the call when his friend, President George W. Bush, asked him serve as ag secretary for the last couple of years of Bush’s second term. Schafer’s tenure won’t be written up in the history books, but he acquitted himself well in the short time he headed USDA.

Like every ag secretary before him, Schafer gets a portrait in the gallery. He should have modestly welcomed the honor, sans the ungracious footnotes of “way too expensive” and “get a cheaper artist.” Frankly, given his service in an administration that was hostile to farm programs that North Dakotans embraced, Schafer deserves high praise (and the portrait) for negotiating that political and public relations minefield.


Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.