Yellowing, with curled corners, or fresh and glossy, pictures of politicians stand watch from the walls of barbecue joints, shoe shines and delis all over Washington, D.C.
Collections of these photos, called brag walls or walls of power, are sometimes curated by first- or second-generation immigrants, for whom they are a totem of success in their adopted country and a celebration of its possibilities.
The brag wall is an artifact from a quainter era, when Members of Congress were simultaneously more approachable and more revered. Back then — and just when “then” was depends on whose hazy, golden memory one consults — they milled around Washington on weekends. They picked up their dry cleaning and ordered “the usual” at diners, instead of rushing back to the endless churn of campaigning in their districts.
The collections are an echo of that past, but they remind us that the small exchanges, which make even Members of Congress human, still happen in the present tense. They tell patrons that powerful people are just like them, leaky oil gaskets and ring-around-the-collar and all.
They, too, get hungry and want a nice meal.
These important men and women might send troops off to war and shape the tax code like clay, but in the end, everyone likes a crispy roast duck.
An American Dream
In an unassuming strip mall in Falls Church, Va., the Peking Gourmet Inn’s neighbors are a discount mattress store and a used-tire place. Not exactly the stomping grounds of heads of state, top military brass and Congressional leaders. But there they are in the photos lining the restaurant’s walls, hundreds of them, grinning, usually flanked by proprietress Lily Tsui or one of her siblings.
It’s one of those restaurants where your grandparents might have first tasted moo-shu pork underneath red silk lanterns and thought it was the most exotic thing they’d ever eaten. An army of waiters in burgundy jackets with black lapels swarm unobtrusively.
Tsui appears in person just as she does in the photographs: polished, with lipstick that matches her ruffled blouse.
She keeps a camera at the ready to capture the VIP guests, a tradition that began in the 1980s when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush visited the restaurant.
Two decades of visitors since, drawn, apparently, by the Tsui family’s hospitality and those glossy Peking ducks, have included royalty, such as several generations of Bahrain’s ruling family, enough starred generals to make up a constellation and what appears to be enough Senators to break a filibuster.
“We’re honored and humbled by these people willing to come to this unpretentious shopping mall,” says Tsui, a Hong Kong native whose parents opened the Peking Gourmet Inn in the 1970s. “It is just so American. In any other country, it is probably not possible to do what we have done.”
Some visitors are more memorable than others, and the memories often are jogged when a face from one of the photos surfaces on the evening news. Tsui points to a photo of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the Congresswoman who was shot in the head in January and is now in a rehabilitation hospital with brain injuries. Giffords dined at the Peking Garden Inn two years ago, and afterward, wrote Tsui a thank-you note.
“She was just so sweet,” Tsui says.
Possible Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who until recently was the ambassador to China, is another favorite guest. Tsui complimented his perfect diction in her native tongue.
“If I had to talk to him on the phone, I wouldn’t know I’m talking to an American,” she says. “He speaks better Chinese than I do.”
Everyone calls David Woodall, who runs the service department at the Exxon at Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, “Woody.”
He’s the guy that Members trust with their vintage babies, their late-model Lexuses and their around-Washington beaters.
Inside the gas station, the smell of motor oil lingers in the early summer humidity, and Woodall crosses his thick arms across the counter. Behind him, about 50 framed pictures partially cover the knotty wood paneling under a painted banner that reads “Capitol Hill Exxon Hall of Fame.”
The collection had already been started when Woodall came to the garage in 1994, and he’s kept it up with new additions here and there.
“Basically, if you’re up there, we’re on a first-name basis,” he says.
Some of the older pictures, though, aren’t so familiar. Woodall points to a black-and-white portrait of an African-American woman. He thought for years it was the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), but someone recently informed him that it isn’t.
“I still don’t know who she is,” he says.
What’s Old Is New
At Wagshal’s, an octogenarian in purple high heels and a matching pantsuit reaches for a box of crackers, while kids fresh from baseball practice whiz by in search of the ice cream freezer.
Brian Fuchs, whose family owns the delicatessen located in upper Northwest’s Spring Valley neighborhood, wrestles with the tension between the old and the new. When his father bought the business from the Wagshal family in 1990, he promised to keep the beloved institution’s neighborhood flavor.
The Wagshal family opened the delicatessen in 1925, and the photos on the wall were among their most prized possessions. “It was a part of them,” Fuchs says of the display. The Fuchs family has expanded the business, opening a catering operation and importing and distributing hams and other foods from Spain.
But some things can’t change, he says, like the portraits of the famous faces who’ve come in over the years.
There are two of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lives just down Massachusetts Avenue, one in what looks like her first lady days and another that appears to be more recent. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) hangs next to a boutonniered Willard Scott. The menagerie includes House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a stern and snowy-haired former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). A picture of President Richard Nixon, now yellowing, might have been the first in the collection.
But the tradition of hanging pictures might — like slow-curing the brisket for the deli’s famous sandwiches — soon become extinct elsewhere. “It’s a dying art form — you don’t see it as much,” Fuchs says.
In today’s hyper-sensitive climate, some politicians are hesitant to hand over their pictures to tack up, he notes, fearing that it might look as if they’re endorsing a private business.
And, he says, modern shoppers like a more streamlined look, with fewer of the tchotchkes common in older stores.
Still, the wall stays.
Dozens of the photos lining the walls of the venerable Senate-side restaurant the Monocle are inscribed to the subjects’ “friends at the Monocle.” And it’s clear they didn’t mean the tribute in the way Sen. John McCain casually tosses around the phrase “my friends” in speeches (although the Arizona Republican is on the wall, with darker hair and more of it than he sports now).
These are friends of owner John Valanos and longtime maitre d’ Nick Selimos in the way of people with whom one has broken bread and shared a drink, a ritual repeated many times.
Among the hundreds of images, a photo of Speaker John Boehner, slimmer and with piercing blue eyes, looks like it could be the Ohio Republican’s high-school yearbook mug. Under his face, Boehner scrawled, “Nick, you’re a great American.”
“He loves that picture,” Selimos says.
Here, bipartisanship rules. A picture of former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) hangs near one of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “I try to mix them up,” Selimos says. “By party and with some in office and out of office. Many of the ones who’ve left office still come around.”
Some are too tempting souvenirs, says Valanos, who once caught a patron trying to lift a portrait from the wall.
And sometimes, the vagaries of public life demand a little redecorating. Selimos says he took down a picture of a former Member who “got in a little trouble.” Of course, like the discreet man he is, he won’t say whose misdeeds warranted the demotion.
“Then he comes in and asked where his picture was,” he says with a laugh. “What am I supposed to do?”
The beams in the main dining room are inscribed with painted quotations. One of them, not attributed to any historical figure, seems to apply to the Monocle and its treatment of its patrons — famous or not: “I give special consideration to everybody.”
Video: Roll Call visits some of the D.C. area’s best Power Walls