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Jun 13, 2006 10:07 pm

Who designs presidential heraldry?

"A wives' tale," scoffed one official. "An urban myth," said another.

They would know. The officials were from the Institute of Heraldry, the government's chief guardian of insignia and heraldic tradition, and they were dismissing an oft-repeated canard about the presidential seal.

According to legend, the eagle in the seal faced the arrow-holding talon in times of war and switched its stern gaze toward the olive branch in times of peace.

The eagle's glare did indeed get reversed — just once, by President Harry S. Truman in 1945. But only, it turns out, to correct the grievous heraldic error that President Rutherford B. Hayes had made 65 years before, when he designed the first seal to adorn White House invitations.

"In point of fact, the viewer's left is the dexter side, the honorable side on any shield," said Joe Spollen, head sculptor at the heraldry institute, which among its other duties nurtures rules and terminology from the Middle Ages. "The sinister side, on the viewer's right, is the less honorable."

And so Truman, after learning the truth from the director of the heraldry office at the time, switched the gaze from sinister to dexter, where it remains today.

The Institute of Heraldry, located for historical reasons within the Army, has a budget of $2.3 million and 24 employees, including four well-schooled "heraldic designers." But the handiwork of this little office has had an outsize influence on the public face of the military and the government.

All plaques bearing presidential or vice-presidential seals, as seen on news conference lecterns and the bulkhead of Air Force One, are hand-sculpted and painted here.

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