After the Swearing-In Ceremony, I went straight to the Oval Office so that I could sign numerous Executive Orders that my staff had been preparing for weeks. But before I picked up my pen, I asked everyone to leave the room and to shut all the doors so that I could be alone for just five minutes.
As I looked around the room, I thought of my father. In September 1963, he too sat in this chair and surveyed the room. He was a writer researching a novel about the first Black president of the United States. With President John F. Kennedy’s permission, my father visited the Oval Office. He called the president’s chair “Everyman’s chair and no one’s throne.” He felt that it was “the seat of freedom to which all Americans elevate one of their own to represent them in their continuing yearning for peace, security, absolute individual liberty.”
The first Oval Office was created for President Taft exactly 100 years ago. It was damaged in a fire in 1929 and rebuilt by President Hoover. But it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who worked with an architect, Eric Gugler, to redesign the Oval Office pretty much as it exists today.
The president’s desk has been around longer than the Oval Office itself. It was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and it is known as the Resolute desk because it was built and carved from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, a British frigate that had been trapped in Arctic ice and abandoned in 1854. The following year, an American whaling ship found the Resolute and brought it back to Connecticut. The U.S. government bought the ship, refitted it and had it sailed back to England, where it was presented as a gift to Queen Victoria as a gesture of peace between the two nations which had been at war only 42 years earlier. When the Resolute was finally retired and broken up in 1879, Queen Victoria ordered that some of the ship’s timbers be made into a desk and presented to the president of the United States.
Not all presidents have used the Resolute desk, but as I touched it, I knew that the same spot had been touched by 22 presidents before me.
Each president refurnishes the Oval Office, changing paintings, changing colors, changing chairs. Actually, the First Lady and her office do most of the work, and I will be leaving it to my wife to make most of the choices. However, I am sure that I will be keeping the portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and President Truman’s sign that says, “The Buck Stops Here.”
There was a knock at the door: my five minutes of solitude were over. I closed my eyes. In a matter of seconds, my whole life flashed before me, and I was moved by the unexpected route that had taken me to this place and this moment. I knew that as soon as that door was open, I would be more than myself; I would be the representative of the more than 300 million living Americans and that I would carry with me the legacy of all who had lived and died since the United States was founded more than 230 years ago.
I took a deep, deep breath, exhaled, and called out, “Come in.”