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A bipartisan picture of healthcare reform

March 22, 2010 |  3:19 pm

Roosevelt

Who says bipartisanship was completely absent from Sunday's historic vote on American access to medical care?

Certainly not the White House, which released an official photograph of President Obama, Vice President Biden and about 40 staffers who assembled to applaud the late-night passage of the bill. Shot by White House photographer Pete Souza, the picture ran on the front pages of newspapers and websites Monday morning, including the Los Angeles Times and latimes.com. And it's a picture that inserts Obama squarely into the middle of healthcare reform's bipartisan history.

The staffers met in the West Wing's windowless Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office. Souza shows the president standing in the foreground, flanked by painted portraits of two venerable if failed predecessors in the fight for federal healthcare legislation. One is Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seated at a desk on the left. The other is Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, FDR's fifth cousin, mounted on horseback at the right.

The Teddy portrait -- painted by Tadé Styka (1889-1954), a Polish immigrant from a family of society artists (and who is buried in Glendale's Forest Lawn Cemetery) -- shows the president in Rough Rider guise. Roosevelt tried to move the Republican Party in a progressive direction and, failing that, started the Bull Moose Party to run again for the presidency. He advocated national healthcare in his 1912 platform.

"Since Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform nearly a century ago, we have talked and we have tinkered," Obama said in a speech on March 5. "We have tried and fallen short, we've stalled for time, and again we have failed to act because of Washington politics or industry lobbying."

The portrait of FDR, the liberal leader who included healthcare in his 1944 Economic Bill of Rights, is more formal, showing the former governor with a sheaf of papers and pencil in hand. The pose declares his role as chief executive.

Although not identified on the White House website, the portrait's painter appears to be Henry Salem Hubbell (1870-1949), an American Impressionist who often painted in the style of Whistler. In addition to several Roosevelt portraits, he painted a portrait of Harold Ickes, FDR's secretary of the Interior, who was charged with implementing much of the New Deal.

Souza's Obama portrait is different still, and not just because it is a photograph. Although the grinning president wears a necktie, he alone among the men in the room does not wear a jacket. He's in shirtsleeves -- a worker, the photograph says -- flanked by a chief executive and an action hero who reached for the same goal but didn't quite make it.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: President Obama and staffers applaud as the House passes the healthcare bill. Credit: Pete Souza/White House

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight at KnightLAT on Twitter.

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