Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kimberley Driscoll pose with essay contest participants and the empty frame that will hang in Healey's office. [Courtesy/Governor's Office]

In poker, they call it a tell – a small gesture that reveals important information about the player and their hand.

In politics, small symbols can also be a tell. Like the ceremonial portrait a new governor chooses to hang in their office.

Gov. Mitt Romney picked a painting of former Gov. John Hancock – another wealthy businessman who played both sides of the ideological fence. Gov. Deval Patrick went with former Gov. John Andrew, the moralistic civil-rights crusader who created the historic first black Civil War regiment. Gov. Charlie Baker selected former Gov. John Volpe, a progressive Republican. All useful hints about where each new governor was headed.

Gov. Maura Healey’s choice? An empty frame.

It’s supposed to be “a reminder of those who aren’t always reflected or heard in the halls of power,” said Healey. “When people come into this office, I want them to envision themselves in that frame.”

Come on. Who but the narcissist sees an empty frame and immediately pictures themself in it? With all due respect to the parade of people who routinely pass through the corner office, not everyone who enters is someone we want in charge.

If Healey wants to dispose of the tradition of choosing a predecessor’s portrait, fine. There is an Old Country Buffet of available options.

Want to inspire the young? How about a likeness of Dawnn Jaffier, the transcendent young community activist murdered during a 2014 Boston street festival. A tribute to a local female icon? METCO pioneer Jean McGuire, the first black female Boston School Committeewoman who was wounded in a stabbing incident last year, would be a great selection.

Choosing either woman would have been a way to show the governor is keeping crime victims top of mind.

For a unity message that defies ideology, why not a dual portrait of old friends Ray Flynn and the late Mel King? Depicting them in their basketball days would also be a badly-needed reminder of Healey’s own athletic credentials.

But the empty frame? It’s a banality along the lines of Time Magazine’s publicity-stunt 2006 choice for their Person of the Year: “You.”

The portrait doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s telling, as tells tend to be.

When the governor is grappling with the rigor mortis of the MBTA and its potential sabotage of mass-transit-based housing development, what will she draw from a glance at the frame?


Which image of leadership will inspire her as she navigates the economic downturn of the future?

No one.

It would have been far better if Healey had installed a mirror. That, at least, would be a reminder of who the buck stops with, and a challenge to always govern in a way that leaves her admiring the reflection she sees.

No more paintings of moldy old white men? Absolutely.

But for gosh sakes, don’t punt on first down.

Jon Keller has been reporting and commenting on local politics since 1978. A graduate of Brandeis University, he worked in radio as a producer and talk-show host before moving into print journalism at The Tab newspapers and the Boston Phoenix. Freelance credits include the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Boston Magazine, the New Republic and the Washington Post. Since 1991 his "Keller At Large" commentaries and interviews have been a fixture on Boston TV, first on WLVI-TV and, since 2005, on WBZ-TV. He is a 12-time Emmy Award winner for political reporting and commentary. He began his Massterlist column in March 2020.