It was a big day at the State House for a man rarely seen in Concord these days: former Governor Craig Benson. Benson’s official portrait was unveiled in a large public ceremony held in Representatives Hall. The ceremony was what you’d expect: a procession of state leaders recalling the legacy of a former governor. But it was also a recasting of Benson’s short time in office.
Benson always embraced the role of outsider during his short political career. The former high-tech entrepreneur urged public officials to disrupt the status quo long before that was a cliché and often spoke of taking a clean sheet of paper approach to problems, starting from scratch, free from the constraints of history.
That’s what speaker after speaker did as they honored Benson. They cast the one-term governor, whose time in office was beset by scandal and Republican infighting, as the architect of much of what’s good about New Hampshire today. To Governor Chris Sununu, Benson was a role model.
“Governor Benson really came with the right philosophy.”
Former Governor Steve Merrill went farther: to him, Benson is owed credit for success that occurred long after his term was up.
“And after Craig Benson we got a structure of New Hampshire government that clearly put us in the 21st century. The economy of this state grew, and strengthened the governors that succeeded him, because they were using his model.”
Perhaps such claims are to be expected at a portrait unveiling. But to people who were in and around state politics when Benson was governor, some of the characterizations of his time in office seemed almost fanciful. Former Senate President Bill Bartlett, a Republican who led Department of Fish & Game under Benson, says fidelity to the record may not be what it once was.
“People don’t take things anywhere near as seriously as they used to.”
Democratic State Senator Lou D’Allesandro smiled and recalled much of Benson’s tenure as chaos, but,
“Revisionist history is always part and parcel of history and we live with it."
And now, the State House will live with a portrait of Craig Benson on the wall. Based on the artist, portraitist Richard Whitney, it should fit right in. Whitney also painted the State House portraits of Governors Hugh and Judd Gregg, and John King and John H. Sununu. Whitney says some governors give him free reign; others have specific concepts. He says Benson gave him strict instructions.
"He wanted to be painted at the speakers’ platform at the Hall of Representatives with the flag behind him. He was very specific as to what he wanted."
But as Benson told the crowd when it was his turn at the podium, he had reservations about going through with it.
“As you may or may not know, I really did not want to do this painting, but I did it.”
Fitting, perhaps, for a governor who never seemed too comfortable in the State House.