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Oval Office Decor Through The Decades: All the Presidents' Desks

Eighteen U.S. presidents have conducted business in the Oval Office since it was first constructed in 1909, but in all that time, only six desks have been used. Here are the stories behind those desks—and some of the historic events that happened behind them.

1. THE RESOLUTE DESK

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In 1852, a Royal Navy vessel called the HMS Resolute was sent to look for John Franklin’s North West Passage expedition, which left in 1845 and hadn’t been heard from since. The Resolute became stuck in an ice floe in 1854, but the men aboard were able to safely abandon it. In 1855, the captain of an American whaling ship discovered the Resolute, about 1200 miles from where the crew had left it.

Congress purchased the ship, then had it refurbished and returned to Queen Victoria as a token of goodwill and friendship. The Queen put the Resolute back into service, but when the ship was retired in 1879, she had three desks made from its timbers. One was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 “as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the Resolute,” according to the plaque on the front of the desk.

Nearly every U.S. president since Hayes has opted to use the desk, whether in the private residence or in the Oval Office. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s President's Study desk—he requested the addition of a front panel bearing the presidential seal to conceal his legs. You can see the panel in the famous picture above, showing John F. Kennedy, Jr., peeking out from behind it.

Jimmy Carter also used the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, as did Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Barack Obama continues to use it today, and in 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented Obama with a pen holder made from the Resolute’s sister ship, the HMS Gannet.

2. THE ROOSEVELT DESK

Teddy Roosevelt commissioned this mahogany desk during his presidency. Taft used it after him, as did Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt (some presidents used more than one desk), Eisenhower, and Nixon. Nixon preferred to conduct business not in the Oval Office, however, but in the nearby Old Executive Office Building. Former Nixon staff member Stephen Hess suggests this was one of the desks Nixon had altered to conceal recorders that caused the Watergate scandal.

Dick Cheney used the desk during his tenure as Vice President. Here he is participating in the tradition of signing the inside of the top drawer.

3. THE WILSON DESK


Though Nixon used the Roosevelt Desk in his working office, he kept the Wilson Desk in the Oval Office—and also had it wired to record conversations. He referred to the desk in his famous “Silent majority” speech, saying, “Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world."

Except... it wasn’t Woodrow Wilson’s. A researcher at the White House discovered that the desk actually belonged to Henry Wilson, Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president. It fell to one of Nixon’s speechwriters, William Safire, to tell the president about the error. Safire wrote a memo in which he also extolled all of the virtues of Vice President Henry Wilson. Nixon never mentioned the memo.

The thing is, though, it probably wasn’t Henry Wilson’s desk, either. White House records [PDF] show that the desk was purchased by Garret Hobart during his brief stint as William McKinley’s vice president from 1897 to 1899. Henry Wilson died in 1875.

4. THE HOOVER DESK

On Christmas Eve of 1929, a fire swept through the West Wing of the White House, damaging President Herbert Hoover’s desk, among other things. The Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturer’s Association offered to make him a new one, and in 1930, the Hoover Desk was installed in the Oval Office.

FDR used it during his tenure. In fact, he was sitting at it when he signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, the GI Bill, and the declarations of war with Japan and Germany—but perhaps because of Herbert Hoover’s reputation as one of our less beloved presidents, the Hoover Desk hasn’t gotten much love since.

5. THE JOHNSON DESK

Lyndon B. Johnson chose to bring in a desk that no president had used before, and picked this mahogany desk built by Senate cabinetmakers sometime between 1906 and 1926. The desk is now featured in the Oval Office exhibit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

6. THE C&O DESK

Created for the owners of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Co. in 1920, George H.W. Bush was particularly attached to this desk. He had used it during his tenure as vice president, and had it brought over to become his Oval Office desk when he became president. The move apparently ruffled a few feathers—people wondered if there was a political motive for replacing the Resolute desk that had become so associated with Kennedy. Bush’s press secretary eventually had to make a statement on the desk, saying, “He had it as vice president, and he got used to it, found it comfortable, thought it was attractive.”

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The Lincoln Library May Have to Sell the President's Hat and Blood-Stained Gloves to Pay Off a Loan
Alexander Gardner, U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
Alexander Gardner, U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images

Two of the most valuable artifacts in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum may be shut away from the public for good if the institution can't pay off its debt. As the Chicago Tribune reports, the presidential library's foundation took out a $23 million loan in 2007 to acquire a collection of items that once belonged to the 16th president. Over a decade later, the Springfield, Illinois institution has yet to pay back the entirety of the loan—and it may have to auction off some of the very items it was used to purchase to do so.

The 2007 loan paid for most of the $25 million Barry and Louise Taper Collection, which before moving to the library was the largest private collection of Lincoln memorabilia compiled in the last half-century. It features 1500 items, including many of Lincoln's personal belongings and writings.

The foundation still owes $9.7 million on the loan, which comes up for renewal in October 2019. In order to avoid financial trouble and retain the majority of the artifacts, the foundation is considering auctioning off two of the most valuable pieces in the collection: A stovetop hat thought to have belonged to Lincoln and the blood-stained gloves he wore on the night of his assassination.

As long as they're in the museum's possession, the artifacts are available for the public to view and researchers to study. If they end up on the auction block they will likely go home with a private buyer and become inaccessible for the indefinite future.

While the Lincoln library is run by the Illinois government, the foundation is privately funded and run independently. The foundation appealed to Governor Bruce Rauner for financial assistance earlier this month with no success. Springfield-area Representative Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, however, tells the Chicago Tribune that she is looking into ways to relieve the museum's financial burden.

If the state doesn't follow through with funding, the foundation does have a backup plan. The Barry and Louise Taper Collection also includes a handful of Marilyn Monroe artifacts sprinkled in with the Lincoln memorabilia and some of those items are going up for auction in Las Vegas on June 23. Revenue from a dress worn by Monroe, pictures of her taken by photographer Arnold Newman, and a bust of poet Carl Sandburg that once belonged to the icon will hopefully offer some relief to the foundation's outstanding debt.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Carter
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Central Press/Getty Images

Bridging the gap between the often-maligned Gerald Ford and the drug-busting Ronald Reagan was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and one of the most esteemed humanitarians ever to hold the office. Carter is 93, and while a nearly-century-long life is hard to summarize, we’ve assembled a few things that may surprise you about one of our most fondly-remembered elected officials.

1. HIS CHILDHOOD DIDN’T INVOLVE MANY AMENITIES.

Born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter’s early years didn’t involve a lot of the rapid technological progressions that were taking place around the country. His family relocated to Archery, Georgia—a town that relied chiefly on mule-drawn wagons for transportation—when Carter was 4. Indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. To pass time, Carter typically listened to entertainment shows on a battery-operated radio with his father.

2. HE DREW CRITICISM FOR REJECTING RACIST BELIEFS.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter served in the military, during which time he married and had three sons. (A fourth child, daughter Amy, was born in 1967.) After his father died in 1953, Carter was honorably discharged and settled on the family peanut farm in Plains, where he found that the South’s deeply-rooted racial biases were in direct conflict with his own progressive views of integration. When Plains residents assembled a “White Citizens’ Council” to combat anti-discrimination laws, Carter refused membership. Soon, signs were pasted on his front door full of racist remarks. But Carter held to his views: By the 1960s, voters were ready to embrace a politician without biases, and Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Unfortunately, Carter found that his liberal views could only take him so far in the state. When he ran for governor in 1970, he backed off on many of his previously-publicized views on racial equality, leading some to declare him bigoted. Once in office, however, Carter restored many of his endorsements to end segregation.

3. HE CAUSED A STIR BY DOING THE PLAYBOY INTERVIEW.

Few, if any, presidential candidates have attempted to stir up support by submitting to an intensive interview in the pages of Playboy, but Carter’s 1976 bid was an exception. Just weeks before he won the election, Carter admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart” many times and that he “looked on a lot of women with lust.”

4. HE NEVER LIKED THE PAGEANTRY OF THE PRESIDENCY.

When Carter entered the office of the presidency in 1977, he made it clear that he considered himself no more elevated in status than his voters simply because of political power. He sold the presidential yacht, thinking it a symbol of excess; he also carried his own briefcase and banned workers from playing “Hail to the Chief” during appearances.

5. HE MAY HAVE SEEN A UFO.

Prior to taking office, Carter filed an interesting report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. In 1969, Carter wrote, he spotted a strange aircraft in the sky over Leary, Georgia. It appeared to hover 30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing. Carter promised to release every sealed document the government had collected about UFOs if elected, but later walked back on the promise, citing national security concerns.

6. HE INSTALLED SOLAR PANELS AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

Carter spent considerable time and effort promoting renewable energy sources as the world struggled with an ongoing fuel crisis. To demonstrate his commitment, Carter ordered that solar panels be installed on White House grounds in 1979, decades before such a practice became commonplace. The panels were used to heat water on the property. Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986 during a roof renovation.

7. HE WATCHED OVER 400 MOVIES WHILE IN OFFICE.

Carter was a movie buff who, as president, enjoyed early access to many films—and he averaged a couple of movies a week while in office. Among those viewed: 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and 1980’s Caddyshack. Carter also screened 1977’s Star Wars with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

8. HE BOYCOTTED THE 1980 OLYMPICS.

After Soviet forces failed to heed Carter’s mandate to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, Carter committed to a radical step: He prevented American athletes from competing in the 1980 Games in Moscow, the first time the nation had failed to appear in the competition. Canada, West Germany, Japan, and around 50 other countries followed Carter’s lead. When the Games moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was the Soviet Union's turn to refuse to appear.

9. HE WAS ATTACKED BY A RABBIT.

Before running for (and losing) re-election in 1980, Carter decided to take a little time for himself and go fishing near his home in Plains. While in his boat, a wild rabbit that was being chased by hounds jumped into the water and swam toward the boat. Carter shooed the animal away with a paddle. Although it was a minor incident, a photo snapped of Carter flailing at the bunny and numerous editorial cartoons gave some voters the perception he was a less-than-ideal adversary for the powerful Soviet Union and may have led to an image of Carter as ineffectual.

10. HE WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE IN 2002.

After decades of philanthropic work, including a longstanding association with Habitat for Humanity, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. It was actually a quarter-century overdue: The Nobel committee wanted to award him the prize in 1978 after he helped broker peace talks between Israel and Egypt, but no one had nominated him before the official deadline had closed.

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