No Room For Flies on These Walls
Wilson’s Office Sports Vast Political Collection
Today, Roll Call debuts an occasional series in which lawmakers welcome readers into their offices and share the stories behind their decorations. We welcome suggestions for future profiles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When most Members arrive on Capitol Hill, it’s standard to bring along a few mementos from home to brighten up their new digs.
Rep. Joe Wilson brought a veritable political museum.
“It’s really a history of the modern Republican Party,” says the South Carolina Republican, whose second-floor Cannon Building office is filled with hundreds of framed photos and other political memorabilia reaching nearly to the ceiling.
And the collection — the political components of which he plans to one day donate to the University of South Carolina — shows no signs of tapering off.
“We have probably a couple pictures hung a week,” says Wilson’s chief of staff, Eric Dell, adding that the Congressman’s district office is also teeming with artifacts. “We are already moving them into the staff area.”
The story begins in the summer of 1963 when the teenage Wilson boarded a bus for Washington, D.C., to take part in a rally to draft Barry Goldwater into the presidential race.
And now, in his lobby, not far from a “Don’t Tarry Back Barry” poster, is his reserved-seat ticket for the event, still in good condition.
In reality, Wilson recalls, “There were no reserved seats.”
Leading the way into his personal office, Wilson, a former Senate intern, points to photos of himself flanked by such icons as then-Sens. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), for whom he worked; images chronicling his time in the Reagan administration as deputy general counsel to then-Energy Secretary Jim Edwards; snapshots during his days in the South Carolina Senate; and, finally, newspaper clippings announcing his Congressional victories.
“I do not underestimate how fortunate I have been to have lived a political revolution,” says Wilson, who came to Congress after winning a special election in December 2001 to replace the late Rep. Floyd Spence (R), whose re-election campaigns he had managed.
He stops in front of a small framed photo, a recent gift from the West Metro Republican Women’s Club, showing the rather abysmal view from his office window, which looks out onto the interior of the Cannon Building.
It’s an image, he laughs, which invokes all the charm of a scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Prior to his move at the end of the 107th Congress to his current space, Wilson had worked out of Spence’s old office in the Rayburn Building, which boasted a far grander view of the Capitol Dome. (A much larger, framed photo of that view hangs over his cluttered desk.)
In addition to the downsized scenery, the office move proved problematic for logistical reasons, says Dell.
Not only did it take roughly a month from start to finish to move all the wall’s contents, but a House maintenance worker had to spend nearly two weeks re-hanging the pictures, Dell notes. (Office staff were told they were not allowed to hang the photos, Dell says.)
“If I do it again what I’ll have to do … is take a picture of the … different sections of the wall,” Wilson says. “Because there is a pattern.”
Wilson’s decorative scheme is in some ways modeled after the office of his former boss, Thurmond, who was also an inveterate collector, says Dell.
“Sen. Thurmond actually had a whole wall that had all the keys to all the cities he had been given, a whole wall with all of his military honors and decorations, and then he had a whole wall with all the honorary degrees he’d gotten from universities, then he had a whole wall of family photos and a whole wall of all the presidents he’d served under since he got elected.”
In Wilson’s case, his personal office features a family wall, a plaque wall (“I make it clear [to organizations] that if I receive a plaque I will put it up”), and his “college wall,” which is anchored by large reproductions of paintings of his alma mater’s namesakes: George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The final wall includes, among other things, framed photos of dozens of prominent Republican political leaders.
Wilson recalls with a chuckle that a friend once gave him an award for an award, just to emphasize the point that he needed “one more plaque.” And that was 20 years ago.
A cabinet in his office is crammed with elephant figurines and busts “of people [he] admires,” such as Thomas Jefferson and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. There is even a Russian nesting doll of Mikhail Gorbachev. Other nooks hold an inauguration license plate from 1969 and a large Iraqi flag, which Wilson picked up in Baghdad not long after the invasion. (His oldest son, Alan, an Army National Guard intelligence officer, returned last week from service in southern Iraq.)
His glass coffee table serves as a display case for countless political buttons, one humorously proclaiming “I’m A Red-Hot Republican.”
Scattered throughout various parts of the office suite are a patriotic needlepoint (a gift from a GOP activist), a Ronald Reagan movie poster, a chip from the Berlin Wall, and just in case its veracity is challenged, a photograph of Wilson hacking away at that erstwhile emblem of Cold War division.
“People have accused me of getting concrete out of a parking lot, OK,” he explains. “I’ve got a picture that proves this is authentic material.”
Given the diversity of the collection is there anything that wouldn’t make the cut?
“Anything not tasteful,” says Wilson.
Which might explain why a signed photo of the Redskins cheerleaders — a gag gift from a lobbyist friend, Dell says — remains out of eyesight just inside Wilson’s closet door. (Although, for the record, the picture is tame enough for the family photo album.)
Wilson maintains that his relentless collecting isn’t a means to create “a home away from home” or a showcase for his accomplishments.
“When I put the pictures up and the plaques [up] I’m really trying to show respect for people who are in the picture,” says Wilson, an unassuming man with a soothing Charleston drawl. “This is not an ‘I love me wall.’ … Virtually every picture in here is me with somebody else or somebody else alone.”
And for all the curiosities he’s amassed over the years, his favorite item isn’t the pictures of him with Presidents Reagan or George W. Bush or any of the other myriad dignitaries he’s encountered over the years, but a simple framed photo of “the whole family” at the baptism of his first grandson.