6/18/12 - the most famous room on earth

In today's excerpt - in Washington, D.C., in the West Wing of the White House, sits the most famous room in the world -- the Oval Office:

"There hadn't even been an oval-shaped office in the White House until 1909, when one was built as part of William Howard Taft's expansion of the West Wing, and that one had been in a different part of the building. The room into which [President Lyndon] Johnson walked on Tuesday morning [in 1963] had been created only twenty-nine years earlier by Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1934 had the President's office moved to the West Wing's southeast corner, from which it was easier to roll in his wheelchair to his living quarters in the Mansion, and who, working with the architect Eric Gugler, designed the room himself. ...

"The ornamentation of the room -- an oval thirty-five feet, ten inches long and twenty-nine wide at its widest point, with a ceiling rising in a gentle arch from a cornice sixteen feet high -- was restrained. The symbols of power in it -- on the ceiling, in plaster, the presidential seal; above French doors classical ped­iments and representations of 'fasces,' bundles of bound rods with an ax protruding, that in ancient Rome symbolized a magistrate's authority -- were muted, subtle, in low relief and painted to blend in with the ceiling and walls. The room was gracious and serene, the four doors leading out of it to other parts of the White House set flush into the walls, so that, closed, they didn't interrupt the walls' long, graceful curves, which were broken otherwise only by book­shelves set into them and topped by graceful seashell designs. Through the French doors one could glimpse a garden with a row of rosebushes along one side. Yet despite the restraint in its decoration, there was something about the room that made it seem special, somehow larger and more imposing than its dimensions, something dramatic, memorable -- unforgettable, in fact.

"Its shape had something to do with that. So rare in America were oval rooms that on entering this one you felt immediately that you were in a place that was out of the ordinary. And with the four doors set flush into its walls, those walls curve in an unbroken sweep, imposing, powerful; the shape of the room somehow imprints itself on the consciousness. From the time it was first built, newspapers and magazines started referring to it not simply as 'the President's office' but, more often, as 'the oval White House office' or 'the President's oval office in the White House.' The silence inside it had something to do with it, too. With the glass in the windows and French doors layered three inches thick, thick enough in 1963 to stop an assassin's bullet, few noises penetrated from outside; there is a particular intensity to the quietness in that oval room. And it is special because of the light that suffuses it. The artificial lighting set invisibly behind the cornice that rims the room is very bright, but artificial light is the least of it. At one end of the room, filling its southern curve, behind the President's desk, are three great windows, each eleven and a half feet tall. In its eastern wall are the three tall French doors. On clear days, the room was bathed in light, sunshine pouring in through all this glass in a flood of light so brilliant that, together with the expanse of white walls -- during the twenty-nine years since the office had been built, the walls had always been white -- it seemed as luminous and dra­matic as a stage set. Because the room is an oval, furthermore, there are no cor­ners in it, no shadows, no darker areas. Day or night, there was nothing to dim the brightness of the Oval Office of the White House.

But the room seemed special mostly because of what had happened in it. History had happened in it. Franklin Roosevelt had sat at that desk in front of the flags and windows bantering with reporters as he guided a nation through a great depression and a great war; hidden below the desk, his paralyzed legs. Harry Truman had stood behind the desk to announce Japan's surrender, had later placed on it the plaque that said 'The Buck Stops Here.' Television had made the nation familiar with the setting -- the President at the desk, flags flank­ing him -- as a grim-faced Eisenhower announced in 1957 that he was sending troops into Little Rock or, smiling his wonderful smile, stood behind the desk, bantering with the press corps, or as Kennedy, sitting at the desk, told the nation about the missiles in Cuba, or leafed through papers while his little son peeked out of the desk's cubbyhole. The room had an aura of great events. And since the desks of all of the four Presidents who had occupied it -- Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy -- had been placed at one end of the oval in front of the tall windows and the tall flags, over three decades the setting had become emblem­atic of the presidency. So familiar was it becoming by November, 1963, thanks to Kennedy and television, that journalistic references to the office were changing, and, as with all things involving Kennedy and television, they were changing fast. The room was, in fact, well along the road to becoming simply the capital­ized, iconic 'Oval Office,' perhaps the most famous room on earth.


Robert A. Caro


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2012 by Robert A. Caro, Inc.


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