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.

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.

Presidential art

To a lot of people, including Mr. Borja, the presidential seal is a work of art. It looks similar to the great seal of the United States, which was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1782. In both seals, the eagle holds a branch of 13 olives in its right talon and 13 arrows in its left. These symbolize the country's power to make peace and war. A ribbon in the eagle's beak displays the motto "E Pluribus Unum," which is Latin for "From many, one." The flag is suggested by the shield on the eagle's chest.

An endless amount of emblems

At first, you might assume that most government agencies or military units already have a seal or emblem. But there is a surprisingly large amount of work generated as new battalions are formed, new naval vessels roll off the production line, and new commissions are formed. A federal agency without a seal would be like a superhero with no costume.

There are around 300 separate projects under construction at any given time: insignia, seals, medals, badges, flags, coats of arms, decorations, and an occasional memorial plaque.

The process of creating a new seal is surprisingly simple. A representative from the agency in need works with one or two designers from the institute. The agency specifies what the seal must show and what message it wants the design to convey. Once designers have an idea, it goes to the agency for approval. Usually, it takes only two or three tries before both sides are satisfied.

Ideas are all around

Designers say simpler is better when designing an emblem. Heraldry has always been an exacting method of identification created by basic elements of design. Dating back to the 12th century, it became important when advances in military technology produced the charging, armor-clad horseman. A clearly identifiable coat of arms kept warriors from felling their friends.

In the centuries since, the heraldic language has become more elaborate, but it is still elemental. Colors are key. White means integrity; blue means dedication; green is life and growth; gold represents achievement and honor; and red stands for zeal.

Icons are taken from the natural world and the abstract. Oak boughs stand for strength. Pine boughs or evergreen for hope. Olive branches represent peace. Then there are an array of arrows, animals, griffins, and lightning bolts.

Timelessness is another key element. Heraldry avoids using icons that will go out of style. Equipment like aircraft or tanks, often requested by some services, date quickly. Instead, an eagle might be used to represent flight, an arrow to show the projection of power.

What's new?

These days, one of the institute's new projects is the creation of a ship's emblem for a new fleet of coastal mine sweepers. Vessels in a series are often named thematically, after famous Civil War battles, or former presidents, for example. This line will be named after birds. Today the emblem is being created for the USS Shrike.

Several bird books lie open on designer Sarah LeClerc's desk. Among them, "Stalking Birds with Color Camera," and The Field Book of Eastern Birds.

"Of course, the shrike is an aggressive bird that impales its prey," Ms. LeClerc explains. "There is nothing wimpy about the animal kingdom," she grins. Her mark will be forever left on the USS Shrike once it has been launched and its crew members wear her insignia.

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