Today's the 145th anniversary of the Department of Justice officially starting operations (happy work-iversary, DOJ—you look great). In honor of this occasion, we were going to highlight some of our favorite memories from one of our top 15 Cabinet departments, but had to shift focus when we discovered something strange about the office of the Attorney General. Stay with us here.
Now, there is a sizable amount of hagiography surrounding the 1960s. The decade has been subsumed by pop culture and the Baby Boomers to Mean Something.
Overblown as it all may seem, however, there was indeed a certain je ne sais quoi to the decade. Want proof? Look no further than the official government portraits of the US Attorneys General from that decade.
Usually, Attorney General portraits are fairly straightforward direct representations of the person who held the office. Here, for example, is a portrait of John G. Sargent (1925-1929) from 1926.
Very serious, very proper, very befitting of a life-long friend to Calvin Coolidge.
John Ashcroft, an Attorney-General under George W. Bush whom you might remember, also has a very straightforward portrait.
There is a style to these portraits and for the most part, everyone sticks to it. For the most part.
Now let's get to the 1960s:
Start off in 1960 and things are normal enough. The then-serving AG is William P. Rodgers. The president is Dwight D. Eisenhower and everyone is using their middle initial. Coats are buttoned and the portraits remain conservative. The calendar might have said 1960, but it was still the '50s, really. This portrait makes sense.
Next up is Robert F. Kennedy.
We're still using middle initials, but we're getting loose. Ties are missing and collars are turned up. This portrait is very accurate and good. RFK is a contemplative man and this portrait gets that point across clearly.
It's also reminiscent of the melancholy portrait that artist Aaron Shikler had previously done of Robert's brother John that is very well known.
Anyway, RFK served as the attorney general until 1964, so it still wasn't THE SIXTIES yet. The metaphorical acid finally kicked in in 1965 thanks to Alan Wood-Thomas' experimental take on Nicholas Katzenbach.
Here is a photograph of Katzenbach.
Now, here is Wood-Thomas' official portrait of the man.
Critics described the portrait as "avant-garde" and were disappointed that it did not adhere to tradition, but The '60s were all about breaking down walls, rejecting whatever it was The Establishment said, and turning anything and everything else things on its head. Alan Wood-Thomas picked up on this perfectly.
And then Ramsey Clark became Attorney General. Here is a photo of Ramsey Clark, in real life.
OK, let's get down and into the counter-culture, shall we? Here's his official Attorney General portrait:
Robert Berks' portrait of Clark captures his trouble-maker attitude very well. As attorney general, Clark told J. Edgar Hoover to quit wire-tapping Martin Luther King. He went to Vietnam to look into US soldiers killing civilians. He convicted some draft dodgers (and Dr. Spock!), too, but no one is perfect. These things did not make him a popular man, but he had his principles, and kinetic energy, and zigging when he was expected to zag. He served from 1967 through 1969 and this portrait says just as much. It makes sense that the portrait was defaced once.
Did "The '60s" end at Altamont or after the Kent State massacre? As soon as Nixon's first election? Watergate, maybe? There's no set answer, but it was clear by the portrait of John N. Mitchell that the time of Questionable Executive Portraiture had ended.
That's the portrait of a man who went to prison for his involvement in the Watergate break-in and ensuing coverup. The Era was over, man.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org