This week, I had the enormous privilege of touring the West Wing. As one can imagine, it did not disappoint, although I was definitely itching to see the inside of the Situation Room. The White House is a magnificent building from top to bottom, that I can tell you.
Unsurprisingly, the most awe-inspiring moment was standing at the entryway to the most prestigious office in the world. Thought I was not allowed to enter the Oval Office, I was still able to get a near-360 degree view (you know, cause it’s an oval). I wanted to stand there for hours.
When you’re in a place steeped in so much history that it almost feels mythical, a million things bounce through your head. You take note of every inch of carpet, hardwood floor, wallpaper, piece of art or furniture. Everything. There are certain items that stick out, of course, such as the ornate Resolute Desk, a gift from Queen Victoria of England to President Rutherford B. Hayes. President Trump chose portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to flank either side of the desk, with black and white pictures of his parents on a table that Presidents traditionally reserve for family photos.
After taking note of the more obvious relics inside the Oval, you start to see the more personal touches of the sitting President. With the help of a White House Secret Service Guard, I learned that the President’s red leather desk chair was delivered directly from his office in Trump Tower. The lamps on two of the side tables are identical to those found in his New York City penthouse. And quite fittingly, there sat an empty Adidas golf bag below the Jackson painting.
If you have the good fortune of spending more than a few seconds looking into the Oval Office, like I did, the weight of everything that has taken place there gradually sinks in. Different people will probably recall different moments in history. I think I can guess where the minds of former Clinton staffers immediately jump to.
During the five-or-so minutes I stood at the entryway, aside from trying to make time slow down or thinking of a way to sneak a picture (if the Secret Service is reading this, I didn’t take on), I reflected on specific events that occurred in the room I was peering into.
Two in particular came to mind.
The first is not a monumental moment in history, a meeting between world leaders, nor a famous address to the nation. In fact, it is one of the more ordinary memories to have graced the office: John-John and Caroline Kennedy dancing and playing while their father claps along.
It might seem silly that this moment was at the forefront of my mind considering the countless other possibilities. Every potentially world-altering decision past Presidents have considered in the Oval Office could’ve popped into my head. Instead, my mind was drawn to an image of a dad playing with his children. Thirteen months after this photo was taken, that boy and girl’s father would be dead.
I possess a deep admiration for John F. Kennedy. Yes, I remain firm in my convictions as a conservative, and I recognize that JFK’s many personal flaws prevent conservatives from maintaining a positive view of his legacy. Mine is not a selective memory, but rather a tribute to his unbounded optimism toward the American spirit that resonates from his inaugural address through the decades since.
His life is also the ultimate “what could have been” for the country. The Kennedy assassination didn’t just wreak havoc on the American psyche. In the context of the Democratic Party, it ushered in a landscape-shifting transition from “ask not what your country can do for you,” to LBJ’s Great Society welfare state.
This is why such an innocent, undoubtedly happy moment in the mythologized era of “Camelot” came to mind, and why a discrete sense of sadness took hold in me when I looked at the floor where John F. Kennedy once watched his children play.
Not only did John Jr. and Caroline lose the man who loved nothing more than to play with them. The country lost its way.
After trying (in vain) to actually time travel back to 1962, and once I realized there were no hiding spots into which I could sneak until President Trump arrived for his morning meetings, another more tangible moment in history came to mind.
It is a recent memory, one that has been preserved in video rather than black-and-white photo. In front of an entire nation in shock, President George W. Bush delivered this heavily (though some would argue unfairly) criticized address on the night of September 11, 2001.
This memory was far more palpable to me than a still image of President Kennedy playing with his kids. I actually remember, though rather vaguely, President Bush’s evening address on September 11.
While standing in the doorway, I could almost see a silhouette of President Bush sitting behind the Resolute Desk, his tired but focused eyes staring at a camera lens through which a wounded, confused, and angry country of 300 million people waited for their President to deliver words of comfort.
Critics of President Bush said he did not show enough emotion during the four-minute speech. They said he seemed unprepared, both for the brief remarks and for the mountainous task ahead of healing a nation that had not endured an attack of 9/11’s magnitude in sixty years.
These now irrelevant critiques did not cross my mind once while I stood at the door to the Oval Office. I only recalled an image of a man who shouldered a burden unlike any President before him. In the morning, he was a President trying to gain traction for his public education agenda. At night, he was the Commander-in-Chief of a nation at war.
Whatever you thought of George W. Bush back then, and regardless of your attitude toward him now, not one single person can say they know how he felt that night. In fact, it would be an insult to claim any semblance of understanding for the position he was thrown into.
However, if you stand where I stood and you look hard enough, you might just find yourself transported back to that September night, and you may very well gain a new perspective on the immense weight the Presidency places on one man. It’s a feeling that transcends politics, party, and ideology, and I’m damn grateful for those Americans who are willing to face the challenges of our country’s highest office.