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David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

David Shribman

Thoughts stitched into an American carpet Add to ...

Suddenly, the most powerful office in the world has a muted feel. This week, the White House unveiled a new look for the Oval Office, which you might think of as the president's workspace. Designed 101 years ago, ravaged by fire, rebuilt, enlarged and constantly redecorated, the Oval Office, like the American presidency itself, takes on the character and temperament of its occupant.

The new look fashioned for and by Barack Obama is a far cry from the decor chosen by the Oval Office's first occupant, William Howard Taft, who favoured caribou hide for the chairs and a checkerboard design for the floor. The Obama changes include fresh paint, different wallpaper and new couches - red, white and blue threads, of course. But the most distinctive element is the new carpet, with five quotes stitched into the fabric.

Every time a new chief executive takes office, White House observers search for meaning in the furnishings he selects for his walls and tables. Harry Truman looked out on portraits of Simon Bolivar and Franklin Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan chose Andrew Jackson, George H.W. Bush selected Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Obama installed busts of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

But carpet quotes are, as John Kennedy might have put it, a new frontier in presidential iconography - revealing much about the President's view of history, the presidency and the character of leadership.

The President, pilloried by conservatives as a champion of big government, suffering from low approval ratings and facing grim prospects in this fall's midterm congressional elections, pointedly did not select, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" (Ronald Reagan) or "Being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep riding or be swallowed" (Harry Truman) or "Democracy is not a polite employer" (Herbert Hoover). Instead, these were his choices:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This is the most famous line from Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address. Delivered in the depths of the Depression, this remark is often regarded as the quintessential expression of American optimism, a presidential rebuttal to the near hopelessness that was pervasive amid a bank panic and with a quarter of workers unemployed. At a time when unemployment remains stubbornly at 9.5 per cent (or 16.5 per cent when discouraged workers and others are included), this is a particularly poignant choice.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is an excerpt from the last sentence of perhaps the greatest speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery at the site of the great Civil War battle in Pennsylvania in 1863. In this passage, Lincoln asked war-weary Americans to rededicate themselves to their founding principles. This speech took but a few minutes - which could stand as an inspiration to a president given to lengthy addresses - and included one remark that has been proven wrong by history: "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here." Indeed, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was right when he said two years later that the speech at Gettysburg was more important than the battle at Gettysburg.

No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. This remark from John Kennedy is from one of his most remarkable speeches, his commencement address at American University in June of 1963. The speech is usually remembered for its advocacy of a nuclear test ban treaty and for the effect it had on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who said he considered it the greatest speech delivered by an American president. Mr. Obama selected a fragment that is evocative of his own aphorism, the audacity of hope. Perhaps as inspiring as the excerpt Mr. Obama chose are the two sentences that preceded it: "Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants."

The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us. This remark comes from one of Theodore Roosevelt's signature addresses, his "square deal" speech on Labour Day at the New York State Fair in Syracuse in 1903. In that speech, he said: "We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less." Mr. Obama's choice of this remark, from the leading voice of the Progressive era at a time when the word "progressive" was not regarded as a euphemism for "liberal," is a symbol of his now-faded hope for bipartisanship in Washington. Theodore Roosevelt and Mr. Lincoln were Republicans, Franklin Roosevelt and Mr. Kennedy were Democrats.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This remark, from Martin Luther King Jr., has long been a favourite of Mr. Obama's. It was a favourite of the civil-rights leader as well, for he used it many times, including at his last sermon, delivered the Sunday before his death, and at the famous 1965 tear-gas confrontation with club-wielding state troopers in Selma, Ala. The remark is derived from Theodore Parker, the 19th-century American Unitarian preacher and social reformer. But that's no sin; FDR's "fear itself" phrase had antecedents in Henry David Thoreau, Francis Bacon - and a newspaper advertisement that presidential adviser Louis Howe said he saw a few weeks before the inaugural.

By grouping Dr. King with four American chief executives, the first black occupant of the Oval Office is elevating the civil-rights leader to the presidential pantheon. Then again, Dr. King's birthday is a federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of each year, close to his Jan. 15 birth date. Americans commemorate a generic Presidents' Day a month later, roughly between the birth dates of Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22), giving Dr. King a distinction shared by no president.

U.S. politicians often speak of an "American tapestry'' or an "American quilt." Now there's an American carpet, for it includes thoughts sewn in the American character. It is up to Mr. Obama and his successors to live up to them - perhaps to add to them - and not to trample them.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.

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