Oct 15, 2010

The Oval Office

If you know me, you know that I think the American system of government, for all its foibles, is kind of awesome. Specifically, I find the presidency to be one of the most intriguing jobs ever created. For all our talk of citizen-rulers, the position still sits in the American mind somewhere between a monarch and politician, just the way that George Washington wanted. Even when the individual occupant is unpopular, we revere the office and its power. Maybe that's one reason that a president who is flailing in the polls isn't simply disliked. A sense of betrayal befalls him. The president, we feel, embodies what we aspire to be; in his hands--true or not--we place the future of the United States. It's a sacred trust and a heavy burden. No wonder presidents age at twice the rate of a normal citizen.

That said, the most iconic image of the presidency is the White House (which I love!), and the most iconic room in the White House is the Oval Office. That's where it happens. That's where the big decisions are made.

Presidents, of course, are all different, and one way their individual differences, political and personal, manifest themselves is through a change in decoration of the Oval Office. It's a tradition that has happened since the Oval Office came into being. When George W. Bush came into office in January 2001, he had the Clinton rug removed and replaced with the old Reagan rug, symbolically indicating in whose footsteps he wanted to follow. In contrast, when Barack Obama became president, he kept George W. Bush's decorations for almost two years, not to indicate a continuity of policy but to avoid a display of needless extravagance in the midst of a recession. How the decorations are treated means something, both to the president and to the American people.

Its decor is also subject to unintentional symbolism. For example, while John F. Kennedy was traveling to Dallas in November 1963, the Oval Office was redecorated with a deep scarlet rug and new furniture. He never lived to see the change (in fact, Mrs. Kennedy never saw it either; the decorations were taken down immediately after the assassination, before she returned to the White House), and Lyndon Johnson, soon after his assumption of the presidency, went back to the dull Truman-era green. The optimism to take on everything--even the traditional old Oval Office--that had seemed so bright was extinguished.

LBJ also brought televisions into the Oval Office, the first and only time that has been done. He would keep four of them running on the different news networks to keep him apprised of what the American people were viewing in Vietnam. Richard Nixon didn't like the way that it looked, nor did he want to follow four different news networks. So, he removed the TV's and installed a new rug--different from any in the past--with the presidential seal emblazoned on it.

Gerald Ford, soon after taking office, with the Nixon decor

Gerald Ford, upon Nixon's resignation, had the Oval Office redecorated, not as much because he disliked the look as to indicate a severance between his administration and his predecessor's. The eagle carpet was removed, replaced with a nice pale yellow, patterned rug. Jimmy Carter kept the decorations during his administration, though he rearranged the furniture a bit.

Gerald Ford's Oval Office (recreation at Ford Library)

Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office, using Ford decor

Ronald Reagan, again wanting to make clear that he was the new president, had the Carter/Ford decor altered soon after arriving in office. It was replaced with a truly eighties motif: pastels and flowery patterns.

Ronald Reagan on his last day in office

Replica of Reagan Oval Office (at Reagan Library)

Reagan was, of course, followed by the first George Bush, who changed the colors of the office to a sky-blue motif. As far as my aesthetic is concerned, it's pretty atrocious, but whatever.

George Bush Oval Office (note the Reagan couches are the same)

Then came Bill Clinton. Frankly, of the motifs I've seen, I like his the best. He used a bold blue rug and two couches with alternating red and white stripes of varying thicknesses. To me, it reflects both the power of the office by catching your eye and subconsciously reflecting the American flag.

Clinton Oval Office

His office was effectively recreated for the television drama The West Wing, which was written as an alternate history to the Clinton presidency. What if, it posits, the president were intelligent like Clinton but had a better moral compass? It's a great show, which, while (according to former White House staffers) not being entirely accurate on the White House layout or the way policy is done, is an excellent portrayal of the energy and the 'mood' that an administration exudes.

George W. Bush, as mentioned above, had the Reagan rug pulled out of storage very soon after he took office. During his tenure, the Oval Office floor was redone (in a beautiful light/dark alternating wood pattern), and his new decorations were put in. They were less intense than the Clinton colors, though I must admit his 'sun rays' rug was an incredible touch. He gets the silver medal in Josh's contest.

Bush meeting with advisers in 2001

President Obama just recently changed the Oval Office decor, reflecting a more modern outlook. For the first time, the walls have been changed from their past off-white, with a vertically striped wallpaper pattern that follows the striped wood floor. I kind of like that. He also installed two new couches, both yellowy-olive corduroy, and a new, moderny coffee table (with a bowl of apples instead of flowers, since he likes that better). I don't particularly like those changes (except the apples...that's fine).

The Obama Oval Office

It's kind of remarkable how iconic 'the Oval' has become. It didn't even exist until Franklin Roosevelt had it built during the Great Depression. Before then, the president had an oval-shaped office in a different location of the West Wing. Before that office (in the early 1900's), it was a simple rectangular one. Before that, there was no West Wing, and the president both lived and worked in the White House itself.

One thing is sure: as long as there is a presidency, there will now be an Oval Office. Our nation's psyche is attached to it. Were something terrible to happen to the White House and the Oval be destroyed, it would be immediately rebuilt. It stands for the Office of the President more than any individual ever could.

Almost all pictures courtesy of the White House Museum (check them out!)

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