Where the Government Gets Its Seal of Approval
In the movie "Deep Impact," the president, played by Morgan Freeman, goes to the White House briefing room to tell the country about a massive meteor hurtling toward Earth. "Life will go on. We will prevail," he promises.Skip to next paragraph
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The set looks pretty realistic, but what you probably don't know is that the official White House seal hanging behind Freeman on the wall, and the official seal of the president affixed to the dais, are fakes.
Federal law prohibits their replication. If you do, you can be fined as much as $250 or thrown in prison for as long as 6 months, or both. So Hollywood plays it safe; producers use nearly identical reproductions instead.
While you probably won't detect the bogus seals, a small corps of government experts can smell one a mile away.
How do they know? Sometimes the eagle will be facing left instead of right, or the colors will be way off. The lettering, too, is a good tipoff. Oftentimes it's way too big or way too small.
But there's nothing fake about how the real McCoys are made. Since 1919, the Army Institute of Heraldry at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia has been providing heraldic services - designing all the flags, emblems, seals - to all branches of the military, federal agencies, and to the office of the president.
The 30 or so people who do this work are pretty mild-mannered, but their pens and paints do an important job. The regal-hued blues and star-spangled eagles reinforce the presidency's power. The torches, lightning bolts, and oak boughs illuminate and underlie the Pentagon's military might.
Trick of the trade
In creating insignia for a military unit or a seal for a government agency, the trick, say designers, is creating visual simplicity. The seal should relay the agency's mission quickly and easily.
"Flags are based more on history, emblems based more on mission," explains director Thomas Proffitt during a tour of the institute's facility in building #1466 on the Fort Belvoir grounds.
Each presidential seal seen hanging in front of or behind the real president is handmade and takes four people and 14 working hours to make. First, plaster of Paris is poured into a steel mold, or die. Once the plaster is dry, a worker trims the design. The painting alone takes hours. A worker will apply all the gold, for example, then let the seal dry before applying the blue. The work is done layer by layer.
Once the seal is completed, it's ready to go on the road. The seal travels with President Clinton, along with at least three extras. The White House communications office stays in close touch with the institute, making sure that several backups are on hand at all times. For good reason. Mr. Clinton can be hard on them.
At an event in his first term, a podium-pounding Clinton unintentionally caused the seal to come off the dais, crashing onto the stage. "I saw that one go," winces Don Borja, Chief of the Sculpture and Display Branch that created it.