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.
"He loves his rug," said Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director. "I've heard him describe it countless times."
Sometimes Bush describes it as a metaphor for leadership. Sometimes he relates how Russian President Vladimir Putin admired the carpet. Sometimes he seems most taken by the lighting qualities.
"When you're giving a tour of the Oval Office, you're trying to point to things that emphasize what you're trying to do" Wallace said. "For him, the optimism is very symbolic of what he wants his presidency to be about."
Not only does the president describe the rug to journalists and foreign leaders, he does so to virtual visitors. During "An Oval Office Tour With President George W. Bush" on the White House site ( http://www.whitehouse.gov ), he wastes no time pointing out the carpet. "It helps make this room an open and optimistic place," Bush tells viewers.
Some visitors have the impression that the rug story is revealing. In his new book, "Rebel-in-Chief," Fred Barnes recounts how Bush told him about the carpet: "His job, he told me, is to 'stay out of minutiae, keep the big picture in mind, but also make sure that I know enough about what's going on to get the best information possible.' To stress the point, during our interview in the Oval Office Bush called my attention to the rug."
Barnes notes that Bush delegated to the first lady. "Typical of his governing style, though, he gave a clear principle as guidance: he wanted the rug to express the view that an 'optimistic person comes here,' " Barnes reports. "The rug she designed is sunshine yellow."
But if Barnes or other visitors had the idea that Bush was sharing an intimacy just with them, they should listen to his speeches. Bush doesn't need the Oval Office to talk about the Oval Office carpet. Lately he's been taking the story on the road, sharing it with workers at a moving company in Sterling on Jan. 19, then with students at Kansas State University on Jan. 23, and again with supporters at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry on Feb. 1.
"If you walk in that Oval Office," Bush said in Sterling, "I think you're going to say, just like you know it, 'This guy's optimistic.' "
When it came her turn last week, Vargas expressed dutiful admiration for the rug and then tried to move on to more serious issues. Noting that Bush has two daughters in their twenties, she asked, "Any chances of a White House wedding for either of them, do you think?"
"All I can tell you is this," Bush answered. "If a suitor shows up and asks for their hand, he's going to get to come here to the Oval Office and give me an explanation."
Sounds as though he'll be called on the carpet.