Mixed reviews for Obama's redecorated 'man cave'


AMERICA:The redesign of the Oval Office was probably intended to suggest that the president has middle-American taste, writes LARA MARLOWE

IT IS probably the most iconic room on the planet, the centre of world power and presumably the place where a US leader could push the nuclear button.

In the old days, US presidents kept the Oval Office pretty much as they found it. Franklin D Roosevelt’s curtains stayed on through the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower marred the wooden parquet floor with his golf cleats.

Richard Nixon hid so many wire taps in the walls that most of the plaster had to be scraped off to remove them.

In a high point of my first year in Washington, I briefly entered the inner sanctum on St Patrick’s Day. About a dozen journalists were brought in at the end of Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s meeting with Barack Obama. Nearly six months later, I can’t remember what the Irish and American leaders said, but I have an indelible memory of Bo, the White House dog, gambolling on the lawn outside.

I stood with my colleagues behind the sofa, almost within arm’s reach of the Leader of the Free World. The atmosphere was one of jovial bonhomie. There wasn’t a scrap of paper on the Resolute Desk, which was built of oak timbers from the HMS Resolute and given by Queen Victoria to Rutherford B Hayes in 1880. The office was much smaller than I’d expected.

The office was redecorated while Barack Obama was on holiday in August. When he gave his “this is not a victory” speech on Iraq on August 31st, Americans glimpsed the new interior for the first time. The Washington Post and the New York Times devoted two pages each to the refit, complete with comparative photographs of the Clinton, Bush and Obama decors, and assessments from the nation’s top designers and political pundits.

George W Bush, whose favourite footwear was cowboy boots, chose Frederic Remington’s bronze Bronco Buster as his signature sculpture. Obama replaced it with a bust of Martin Luther King jr.

Some elements of the Oval Office are never tampered with – the ovoid portrait of George Washington over the fireplace; the grandfather clock by the door. But the last four presidents have changed the carpet, at a cost ranging between $28,550 (€22,430) and $61,000 each. Bush’s carpet had a blue presidential seal radiating yellow stripes in a sunburst effect.

Obama’s carpet, woven in recession-stricken Michigan, also has a presidential seal, but surrounded by a sea of boring wheat-coloured wool, with Obama’s favourite quotations from Abraham Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King jr written around the border.

Or at least Obama and his biographer David Remnick thought this was a quote by King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” A mini-scandal broke out when it emerged that King often used the quote, but attributed it to its true author, the 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.

Arianna Huffington, the editor of the Huffington Post,dubbed the re-decoration “The Audacity of Taupe”, a play on the title of Obama’s political treatise, The Audacity of Hope. But with the cattiness that Europeans are known for here, Huffington called the quotations on the rug “a tad Hallmarky” and asked “What’s next, adding the doodle of a heart with ‘Barack + Michelle’?”

The bowl of apples on the controversial mica coffee table drew mixed reviews. Some commentators saw it as nutrition conscious, ecological and a money-saver over flowers. I side with the practical reviewers who noted that no visitor to the Oval Office would dare grab an apple and start munching in the presence of the president. What would you do with the core?

Maureen Dowd of the New York Timessummed it up best: the office is a “redecorated man cave . . . suffused with browns and beiges and leather and resembles an upscale hotel conference room or a 70s conversation pit”.

If Sarah Palin ever becomes president, Dowd suggested, her rug might say “Don’t Tread on Me”, the Tea Party slogan.

Obama’s redesign of the Oval Office to look like a family television room was probably intended to convey that the president has shockingly neutral, middle-American taste.

Like his speeches and press conferences, it gave the impression that Obama was somehow holding back, intent on providing no material with which to attack him.

As the chatter over the decoration subsides, the Obamas will soon face another aesthetic dilemma. Green campaigners are heading for the White House, carrying a solar panel which Jimmy Carter placed on the roof 31 years ago, only to see it removed by Ronald Reagan.

In an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post, Bill McKibben, the founder of the global warming campaign 350.org, asked Obama “to put it back on the roof, alongside a full array of new photovoltaic and hot-water panels”.

The president must set an example, McKibben argued. A year after Michelle Obama planted a garden at the White House, sales of seeds had shot up 30 per cent.