Bush Weaves Rug Story Into Many an Occasion

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Nothing says power like the Oval Office. The paintings of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The bust of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The desk used by both Roosevelts.

And then there's the rug. Don't forget the rug. President Bush never does.

For whatever reason, Bush seems fixated on his rug. Virtually all visitors to the Oval Office find him regaling them about how it was chosen and what it represents. Turns out, he always says, the first decision any president makes is what carpet he wants in his office. As a take-charge leader, he then explains, he of course made a command decision -- he delegated the decision to Laura Bush, who chose a yellow sunbeam design.

Elizabeth Vargas, the ABC News anchor, was the latest to get the treatment. She went by last week to interview Bush before his trip to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Sure enough, she wasn't in the room but a minute or two before he started telling her about the carpet.

"You know an interesting story about the rug?" he asked. "Laura designed the rug."

"She did?" Vargas said.

"Yeah, she did. Presidents are able to pick their own rugs or design their own rugs."

Bush went on: "The interesting thing about this rug and why I like it in here is 'cause I told Laura one thing. I said, 'Look, I can't pick the colors and all that. But make it say 'optimistic person.' "

The oval-shaped carpet covers most of the world's most famous office, first occupied in 1909 by William Howard Taft, who found a checkerboard floor made out of mahajua wood from the Philippines. Subsequent presidents have chosen one design or another, but the consistent theme has been the seal in the center with the American eagle holding olive branches in one claw and arrows in the other. In a fit of postwar symbolism, Harry S. Truman changed the seal so that the eagle would face toward the olive branches, not the arrows.

Many presidents have added their own tastes to the Oval Office. "They use the office's imagery," said Fred I. Greenstein, a professor emeritus at Princeton University who has written on presidential leadership. He recalled John F. Kennedy's son John peeking out from under the desk, an image that conveyed youth and family. Lyndon B. Johnson, who was obsessed with breaking news, kept a ticker-tape machine and three television sets in his Oval Office. Ronald Reagan's aide Michael K. Deaver revamped the lighting to make it better for television addresses.

"Ford very deliberately changed the Oval Office to get rid of some of the imperial presidency image," Greenstein recalled of Gerald R. Ford. After the trauma of Watergate, he said, Ford replaced portraits of dour-faced Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson with paintings of the unpretentious Truman and Lincoln.

Bush has his own touches in the Oval Office -- some Western-themed paintings and an on-loan bust of Winston Churchill courtesy of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But it is the rug that animates the president.


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