Volpe makes an encore appearance in the corner office

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The transition has been made on Beacon Hill. One governor has left the corner office, another moved in. And it’s not just Mitt Romney who replaced Jane Swift. John Volpe has taken the place of Winthrop Murray Crane as well.

New governors get to bring in their own people. That includes selecting an official portrait of a former governor to hang over the fireplace. When Jane Swift took over for Paul Cellucci, she chose to have Crane, a Republican who served as governor from 1900 to 1903, as her office mate. The last elected governor born in Swift’s native Berkshire County, Crane has been a hero of sorts to Swift. In addition to putting his portrait in the place of honor, she used his name–Winthrop M. Crane–as her confidential state e-mail address. Now Swift, like Crane, has left the State House to go home and make money. As the principal breadwinner in a family of five, Swift needs to put food on the table. But Crane made money in the literal sense: His family paper company in Dalton had the sole contract to manufacture the special rag paper used to make US currency.

So Jane Swift exited the corner office and the portrait of Crane, by Frederick Porter Vinton and William W. Churchill, left with her. He has been replaced by Pietro Annigoni’s 1963 likeness of John Volpe (1961-63; 1965-69), a pro-business Republican who served in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet.

Weld elevated Curley to the spot above the mantelpiece.
It’s not the first time Volpe’s portrait has been in the place of honor. Paul Cellucci also selected John Volpe as a replacement for James M. Curley, who was elevated to the spot above the mantelpiece when William F. Weld took office in 1991. In a move that was seen by many as tongue-in-cheek, the blueblood former prosecutor took down the portrait of Samuel Adams–Michael Dukakis’s choice–to make room for the scandal-tarred Democrat who once won election to the Boston Board of Aldermen from a jail cell.

Initially, Gov. Romney was not aware that Volpe had been Cellucci’s pick as well, although he says “many people have since informed me of this fact.” But Romney has many sources of attachment to Volpe, who was a close friend of his father, former Michigan governor George Romney. Volpe, like Romney, also faced large Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, though Romney will try to avoid becoming known, as Volpe was, as the “Lonely Man on Beacon Hill.” Romney may even take Volpe’s lead on the matter of hanging gubernatorial portraits. Told that Volpe bestowed the honor on a different governor at the start of each of his three terms, Romney now says that he, too, “would like to reserve the right to change portraits.”

Romney is likely to preside over the unveiling of Swift’s official portrait when the time comes–but given his role in pushing her out of the State House, it’s unlikely that he’ll put his predecessor back in the corner office no matter how many times he switches portraits. Only last summer, the thought of having her portrait done took the acting governor by surprise. “It’s not something that I ever expected,” Swift told the Associated Press. But the hallways of the State House already contain the portraits of several Colonial-era chief executives with “acting-governor” beneath their names.

According to Lori Magno, executive assistant to Swift, the acting governor spent “little or no time” before leaving office thinking about her portrait (which will be paid for with campaign funds) or who will paint it. Magno says she hopes Swift will gravitate toward “something classic” in terms of pose and setting. That would make her image more like Cellucci’s official portrait, which shows him seated in his wood-paneled office, than Weld’s, which The Boston Globe describes as showing him “wearing blue jeans and a Mona Lisa smile, standing in the woods with an armadillo nearby.”

Although Michael Dukakis and Edward King, the last two Democrats to serve as governor, agreed on very little else, they both chose to honor a predecessor from the Commonwealth’s early days. Dukakis picked Samuel Adams, and King replaced him with John Hancock.

By contrast, GOP governors have picked figures from a more recent century. When Volpe was first sworn into office in 1961, he chose the portrait of Christian Herter (1953-57), for whom Volpe had worked as commissioner of public works. Herter, complete with an unfiltered cigarette between his fingers, held the spot of honor throughout the term of Democrat Endicott Peabody (1963-65). But when Volpe returned to office two years later, he replaced his old boss with a 1900 portrait of Marcus Morton (1825; 1840-41; 1843-44). Until Volpe recaptured the corner office, Morton, a one-time acting governor himself, was the only man to be elected governor after an earlier defeat. When Volpe started his third term, in 1967, he replaced Morton with Leverett Saltonstall (1939-45), who remained there through the administration of Frank Sargent (1969-75).

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In addition to being the first governor to change portraits while in office, Volpe set a different kind of precedent when he left the state in the middle of a term to answer a call from the White House–something that Weld and Cellucci did more recently. But Romney takes pains to say that he doesn’t intend to emulate his GOP predecessors this way, not even the one hanging on his wall.

“I have said, and I will say it again,” Romney wrote in an e-mail, “that I intend to serve all four years of my term.” Perhaps tired of reassuring people that he will serve out his entire term, Romney went even further, adding, “The challenges facing the next governor are so big that they will require at least a four-year commitment.”

Some people might doubt those words. But to others, it must seem like the start of a 2006 campaign for re-election.

James V. Horrigan has worked at the State House for more than 20 years and is known for his tours of the Gallery of Governors.