I went to my framer yesterday afternoon and picked up the presidential commission for my appointment to the National Council on the Arts. It’s a splendidly old-fashioned document, about twice the size of a college diploma, printed in copperplate script on thick cream paper by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It is, of course, a fill-in-the-blank form, starting with a space on top for the current president’s name, with the blanks filled in by a calligrapher.
Here’s what it says:
To all who shall see these presents, Greeting:
Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the Integrity and Ability of Terence Alan Teachout of New York, I have nominated, and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, do appoint him as a Member of the National Council on the Arts for a term expiring September 3, 2010, and do authorize and empower him to execute and fulfill the duties of that Office according to law, and to have and to hold the said Office, with all the powers, privileges, and emoluments thereunto of right appertaining, unto him the said Terence Alan Teachout, subject to the conditions prescribed by law.
In testimony whereof, I have caused these Letters to be made Patent, and the Seal of the United States to be thereunto affixed.
Done at the city of Washington this twenty-ninth day of November in the year of our Lord two thousand four and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty-ninth.
It’s boldly and illegibly signed at the bottom by the autopens of Secretary of State Rice (whose signature looks like “A.C. Pfft”) and President Bush (his is a dead ringer for “Byurze”).
The part I like best is the first blank. Reposing special trust and confidence in the–what? Are “Integrity and Ability” reserved for low-level appointments like mine? And if so, what do the presidential commissions of cabinet members say? Is the Secretary of the Interior also praised for his Integrity and Ability? Or does his commission contain doubly juicy superlatives reserved for the exclusive use of Washington’s really heavy hitters?
I kind of hate to admit this (well, no, I don’t), but I’m irresistibly reminded of a passage from Michael Collins’ wonderful Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys in which he describes one of the little-known steps a male astronaut must take when putting on his pressure suit in preparation for being shot into outer space:
Then it’s time to don a triangular yellow plastic urine bag by inserting the penis into a rubber receiver built into one corner of it. There are three sizes of receivers (small, medium, large), which are always referred to in more heroic terms: extra large, immense, and unbelievable.
Perhaps the bigger dogs get the equivalent of “extra large” or “immense” on their presidential commissions–though presumably not “unbelievable.”
As for those “emoluments,” there aren’t any. Outside of my traveling expenses whenever I visit Washington on NEA business, this one’s on me, and I’ve been warned that I’ll be paying through the nose for the honor of hanging a presidential commission on my wall: I’ve already filled out enough paperwork to decimate a shady grove, and there’ll be plenty more to come before my six-year term expires. That’s all right by me. Aside from the fact that you don’t say no when the President of the United States asks you to do something for him, I consider it not merely an honor but a privilege to be able to give back something to the arts in America. Art has given special meaning to my life. Now it’s my turn.
All this notwithstanding, I figure I’m entitled to a little more than my train fare and the satisfactions of a job well done. Obviously the White House agrees, which I assume is the reason why presidential appointees are given such handsome-looking documents to hang on their walls. It went without saying that I’d put mine in a first-class frame, one identical to the ones I use in the Teachout Museum–but where to hang the damn thing? It’s too big to fit in any of the remaining empty spots (of which there are no longer very many) on the walls of my minuscule one-bedroom Upper West Side apartment, and when I considered taking down a piece of art to make room for my commission, my heart sank.
I thought and thought, and suddenly it came to me: why not the bathroom? Not only is it tastefully decorated in cornflower blue and yellow, but it’s next to the living room, thus allowing me to show off for my visitors by leaving the door discreetly ajar. But would it be disrespectful to hang a presidential commission there? Though a friend assured me that many actors keep their Oscars in the bathroom, I wasn’t satisfied. Such a gesture smacked of phony humility. (As Thomas Mann allegedly said to a fellow writer who was eating a bit too much humble pie, “You’re not great enough to be that modest.”)
Then it struck me as I was giving a new acquaintance a tour of the Teachout Museum that my bathroom also contains a small lithograph by Pierre Bonnard, Le Soleil. If it’s good enough for Bonnard, I told myself firmly, it’s good enough for a presidential commission. So I took down my Suzanne Farrell poster and hung up my latest acquisition…and you know what? It looks pretty great. Besides, its presence will also help to remind me that no amount of good fortune relieves a man of the inescapable commitments of the flesh. Even a presidential appointee has to spend a certain amount of time in the bathroom each day, just like everyone else.
No doubt I’ll move in time to a somewhat larger apartment, and when I do I’m sure I’ll find a more appropriate spot for my Official Certificate of Integrity and Ability. For now, though, I like it just fine right where it is.
UPDATE: A friend who should know writes:
I do NOT think commissions are auto penned–I am fairly certain they are not–there are not enough of them to do that, and they really are a mark of honor. But I don’t think the president’s signature is real–I think that is printed on the commissions at the beginning of each admin. But Condi’s sig is, I am almost certain, Condi’s sig.
Just so you know.
And another sharp-eyed reader points out that “A.C. Pfft” can’t possibly be Condoleezza Rice, who wasn’t confirmed until after my commission was signed: it must be Colin Powell. Now that’s what I call illegible!