originally published February 23, 2014
After two days of stirring up controversy – first over my disdain for the institution of Scientology and then for my vocal indifference to the Who’s The Boss theme song – I thought I’d lay low today, and tackle a topic that should be relatively devoid of hot-buttonness, despite its proximity to the realm of politics. Furniture. Who cares about furniture?
If you’re the President of the United States, you’ll have to devote at least a smidgen of your pre-inaugural days toward selecting the desk behind which you’ll be planting your Presidential butt for the next four (or eight) years. The highest desk in the land is not a random piece of furniture; it has a name, an origin story, and a place in the nation’s history. You won’t see some IKEA-made Liatorp being hastily assembled by the Secret Service during an inaugural ball.
These are the desks upon which bills were signed or vetoed, the desks which housed the infamous Red Phone (though there never really was such a thing), the desks upon which nation-shaping elbows rested while nation-shaping hands supported exhausted nation-shaping heads.
As a Canadian whose primary teachings of American history came courtesy of School House Rock, I was surprised to learn that the Oval Office did not in fact exist until 1909. Prior to that, Presidents used the second-floor Yellow Oval Room as an office – I suppose the cornerless shape is conducive to executive power or something. Anyhow, the mighty slab of mahogany and brass up there is known as the Roosevelt Desk, first used by Teddy in the newly-constructed West Wing.
A fire ravaged the Oval Office on Christmas Eve, 1929, but Teddy’s desk – presently in use by Herbert Hoover – survived. Still, a concerned group of Grand Rapids, Michigan furniture makers sent a new desk to the White House. Hoover was impressed with the new unit, and sent Teddy’s desk into storage. Even after Franklin Roosevelt had the old Oval Office scrapped and a new one (the current one) built, he continued to use the Hoover Desk.
FDR kept his keester behind the Hoover Desk throughout his presidency, but when Truman took over in 1945, he opted for tradition over modernity, and had the Roosevelt Desk brought out of dry-dock and placed for the first time in the modern Oval Office. The Hoover Desk has since made its way to the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.
The Roosevelt Desk enjoyed two presidencies beneath the knuckles of power until Kennedy decided he wanted something different. Teddy’s desk headed off to shadier neighborhoods, getting retrofitted with a recording apparatus in the Old Executive Office Building where Richard Nixon would record most of the Watergate tapes, then ending up in Dick Cheney’s office throughout his vice-presidency.
Perhaps the most exquisite of all presidential desks is the Resolute Desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. The desk was built from the hull of the British Arctic Exploration ship, Resolute. In the above photo, JFK Jr. is peeking through a small door that FDR had installed in the desk so that the press couldn’t see his wheelchair when he sat behind it.
Kennedy was the first president to plunk the Resolute Desk into the Oval Office. After his assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson decided his frame was too large to feel comfortable behind the desk, and it was shipped off to the JFK Presidential Library and eventually the Smithsonian Museum. Jimmy Carter requested the return of the desk to the White House, and it has remained the nation’s top-ranked desk throughout the reigns of Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
That desk has seen some shit.
Lyndon Johnson’s desk had plenty of legroom, and clearly it was LBJ’s comfort zone. He’d used the desk throughout his time in the Senate, in his vice presidential office, and right through his tenure in the West Wing. This was the first time a presidential desk was a personal memento, and so it seemed fitting when Johnson left office he’d take it with him. The desk currently resides in his Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
Apparently LBJ loved his desk so much, he’d slip over to his Library and plant himself behind it from time to time after he retired, just to mess with the tourists.
When Richard Nixon took over, he requested the desk that Woodrow Wilson had used during his presidency. His staff, who apparently wasn’t too picky about details (Wilson had used the Roosevelt Desk), grabbed this one, which had been brought to the White House by Vice President Garret Augustus Hobart in 1897. Nixon’s press secretary commented that the desk was actually used by Vice President Henry Wilson (Ulysses Grant’s #2), not Woodrow. But that also appears to be untrue; the desk was built a quarter-century after Henry Wilson had died.
Facts and truth really took a beating during Nixon’s presidency.
Nixon also had this desk outfitted with numerous recording devices, which allowed him to capture all the audio that was later used to masticate his presidency into putrid little crumbs, courtesy of the Watergate hearings. Gerald Ford continued to use the mis-named Wilson Desk, after which it was sent back to the Vice President’s Room in the Capitol Building. It’s still there, propping up Joe Biden’s phone – though probably without the recording equipment.
Sometime in the 1970’s, shortly before a cluster of railroad companies merged to form the CSX Corporation, a desk once used by one of the owners of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway was donated to the White House. The desk had been built around 1920, and it found a comfy home in the Oval Office Study. George H.W. Bush took a liking to the desk and began using it as his own in 1985. Three years later he was elected President, and the C&O Desk bumped the Resolute Desk from the Oval Office.
I don’t know what happened to this desk, as Bush Sr.’s Presidential Library contains only a replica. Maybe George took it home with him after he lost the 1992 election, though I’d think the White House would be a little squeamish about allowing a desk that had been donated generously to the top building in the land to go home as someone’s personal souvenir.
The Resolute is back in power now, and until some President takes over and craves a fresh slab of wood beneath their wrists, we’ll leave the total tally of official Oval Office desks at a mere six.
And in case any of you were wondering – and you probably weren’t, but I was and I’m the one writing this thing – President Josiah Bartlet’s desk on TV’s The West Wing does indeed appear to be a snazzy replica of the Resolute Desk. So score one for historical accuracy.