The Oval Office is between presidents.
Silence has descended upon the room where just hours earlier a commander-in-chief had been rushing to resolve a crisis, a room that now stands waiting to see another occupant to his place in history.
It is noon, and the Oval Office is for the moment at rest.
The ornately carved desk first used by Rutherford B. Hayes stands bare, its drawers empty. The table behind it, once stacked with books and classified reports, is empty too. The huge globe has been dusted, the pillows on the twin sofas have been fluffed; Maurine Simms, who has worked there since Johnson, has finished vacuuming and Dominador T. Julian, whose service goes back to Eisenhower, is putting the last polishing touches on a brass doorknob. As he works he is listening to the television set on which Jimmy Carter had monitored the messages of the leaders in Iran. s
"I, Ronald Reagan, do solemly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States. . . "
Suddenly, the quiet emptiness of the oval chamber is shattered by the swooping entrance of John Rogers and four assistants.They are ushering in a new era.
They are moving with machine-like efficiency, pivoting the two sofas and shifting end tables and sliding the huge globe, a team of precision, leaving no movement to waste and nothing to chance.
Theirs is a restoration of sorts.
"We're just putting it all back the way it was when Nixon and Ford were here," explains Rogers, a clean-cut and efficient young man who will be Reagan's special assistant for management.
They also make a few alterations in the portrait selections in the Cabinet Room. They remove the painting of Jefferson and the one of Truman, and hang in their places Eisenhower and Coolidge. Lincoln, being Republican is allowed to stay.
"It's a new era," says Rogers, pausing in his restoration. And indeed, it is.
Eras. Names and faces and furniture and portraits can be changed every four years, but it is rare to see an era come and go as quickly as the one that has just passed through Washington's out-of-sight, out-of-mind consciousness.
Gone is the time of inaugurations done in business suits and a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. Gone too is the no frills presidency that Jimmy Carter thought America wanted from him. He had de-pomped the presidency in the name of populism, complete with cutbacks on color TVs and chauffeured limousines, but that apparently is not what Americans really wanted most of all, and so yesterday Ronald Reagan gave it all back and more. w
Ronald Reagan became president in a week of ceremonies that made excess the coin of the realm. His was the beginning of the return to inaugurals in morning suits and stately rides down the Avenue, of lavish galas and soirees, of streets choked with limos, of a $25,000 inaugural wardrobe for the First Lady and, all in all, of frills galore.
What is new about Reagan's era is not the reality of his times but the expectations of his countrymen. Americans seemed to be genuinely pleased this week with Ronald Reagan's re-pomping of their presidency. They have decided that what they want is leadership, and Reagan's plan to give them, at least action -- starting with a hiring freeze signed in the first minutes of his presidency. Reagan has plans for the action-filled first 100 days, which is exactly what Jimmy Carter's so carefully eschewed at the outset of his one-term presidency, preferring a slow and steady and contemplative approach instead.
Yesterday was Ronald Reagan's day and all of Washington was working to shape things for his liking. So it was, even before Reagan had finished his inaugural address, a workman was in the Cabinet room affixing a special presidential nameplate medallion to the back of a brand-new chair that is taller than the rest. And Joseph Morris, 50, a White House painter, was going about the stark white Oval Office tending to last minute touchups, trying to please his new bosses, but perhaps not completely pleasing those who noticed that he had neglected to take the green-and-white Carter-Mondale button off his coveralls.
And among those anxious to please was Clement E. Conger, curator of the White House.
Conger, an affable fellow, came bounding down the corridor toward the Oval Office just as Ronald Reagan was winding up his inaugural address at the Capitol, and just as John Rogers and the other Reagan aides were winding up their restoration project in the Oval Office.
"Oh, I see you've rearranged the furniture," said Conger. "I'm glad. I didn't like the president's -- that is, the past arrangement. This is much better."
He paused, and surveyed the three busts that stand in the Oval Office: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Harry Truman. And then, demonstrating the agility that has enabled him to last through four presidents on the job, Conger volunteered:
"If you don't like Mr. Truman, we can move Mister Truman out."
The president had not yet arrived at the White House, but in the West Wing the Reagan era was under way. Just around the corner from the Oval Office, Shirley Moore, secretary to Reagan's deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, eased into her new desk, anxious to get to work.
The telephone rang, her first call in the new job.
On the other end of the phone, a voice was asking for Hamilton Jordan.
"Well, he's not here anymore," said the secretary.
How about Jack Watson, the caller persisted.
"No, they're all gone now," Moore said. "We're the new folks in town, and we're the ones in charge now."