Thanks to the help of a college friend, I was recently lucky enough to take a tour of the famous (and infamous) West Wing. My only prior trip to the White House - also with my Dad - took place during the Clinton administration, when the Hungarian Prime Minister came for an official state visit. One distinct difference between the two visits relates to security - on the first, pre-9/11 visit, I vividly remember my Dad showing a bewildered White House guard a picture of me on the front cover of the local sports section as my "official" ID. How times have changed... This time I had to send my personal information (including social security number) ahead of time, and make it through two separate checkpoints before being allowed to enter. Once inside, I remember speaking very infrequently (those who know me will recognize how rare this is). The aura of the place was simply overwhelming. As we walked by the Roosevelt Room, the Rose Garden, the Press Room, it was almost impossible to comprehend the history, people, and decisions that had taken place in their confines. But by far the highlight of the tour was seeing the Oval Office.
Prior to this visit, my exposure to the Oval Office was limited to an intuitive understanding of what it represented - the office of the most powerful person on the planet - and visually to a few photos and important Presidential speeches. So as we walked down the hallway, I wasn't sure what to expect. My immediate impression was that it was significantly smaller than I had expected. I suppose you expect an office in which the most important decisions are made to be large, imposing, formidable... and it is just not the case. The next thing I noticed was a bowl full of ripe apples on the table - my research would later show that this was a decision made by Obama to symbolize his commitment to healthy eating. It also made me wonder who would be bold enough in his or her limited meeting time in the Oval Office to dig in to a Presidential apple. Behind Obama's famous "resolute" desk you could see through the window the playground set up for his two daughters. As my Dad noted, it is strange that all our Presidents sit with their backs to such a lovely and peaceful garden and lawn. Gone was Bush's bust of Winston Churchill, replaced by one of Martin Luther King, Jr., as was Bush's notoriously optimistic "sunshine" rug. In its place was a somewhat drab carpet with a number of inspirational quotes. Apart from the size, I was most amazed by the circa 1995 phones and fax machine. Also amusing - the antiquated phone outside the office read: 7 Missed Calls. I had seen enough to be intruiged, and wanted to learn more.
The office was first occupied by Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt in 1933. Since FDR, each President has added his own personal decorative touch. The resolute desk was first used by FDR, who added a door to its back, preventing visitors from seeing his wheelchair. This door gained legendary status when JFK junior was photographed playing in it while his father worked. The office commands such respect that early in his administration Obama was taken to task for not wearing a jacket while at his desk. Obama waited almost two years to make his ritual renovations given the economic recession. As his new furnishings were unfurled, he called the Oval Office the "greatest home court advantage", a message echoed by many former Presidents. Some of the most important speeches in the last 60 years have come from the office, including JFK's speech on the Cuban Misssile Crisis, George W. Bush's 9/11 address, and Nixon's resignation and subsequent pardon. The Oval Office is simultaneously a historic space and a bustling nexus of the country's political and economic business, a mix of the new and the old, the left and the right...
I pointed out the old phones, the apples and the intimacy of the place not to belittle or demean the White House or the Oval Office. These characteristics reminded me in a very tangible way of the human element in all this. It seems that over our short history, the US Presidency has acquired almost mythical status - as if the reason for or the solution to any problem is one man (or woman). At the end of the day, those who run countries, companies, religions, armies... they are all people. They are people with different motives, different ideals, different backgrounds. Care for an apple?