Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Meaning of the 'Oval' Office

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Meaning of the 'Oval' Office

Article excerpt

The precedent for oval rooms in American affairs of state can be traced to George Washington. He modified chambers in the President's House in Philadelphia with bowed ends so that guests at formal receptions could all stand equidistant to the president. It was a symbolic expression of democracy.

While the current Oval Office goes back to President Franklin Roosevelt, the White House's first Oval Office was occupied by William Howard Taft in 1909. He avoided the rectangular room used by Theodore Roosevelt, relocated the presidential office to a central position in the West Wing, and opted for the oval.

The repositioning of the president's office signified the central position of the presidency. But here's the funny thing about ovals, or, in geometric terms, ellipses: Unlike circles, which are defined by a single center, ovals are defined by two key points, each, appropriately, called a "focus."

A focal point is a two-way juncture - a spot not only of radiance, but also convergence, the position that "takes the heat." Leaders often deserve the glare of public criticism. But we should also remember that they are not aliens who've arrived by spaceships. They are us.

Yet during elections, undue hope blazes forth from ardent supporters. They project their light onto the candidates whose every action is a petition to their anonymous authority. The candidates reflect that focused light back as their own. The electorate, seeing hope and power as uniquely beyond themselves, get caught in a spell of their own making. Everything seems to revolve around the president.

But the seat of power, the Oval Office, has that other, unseen focal point, as if to indicate a room with two "centers" of responsibility. Could that be our spot in the room? Democracy, after all, is self-government. When the spell of the campaign is inevitably broken, we awake to learn anew the lesson of projecting all hopes and responsibilities, and the cost of not taking our position.

Currently, our greatest surplus is in difficulties, with an ever- growing list of designated villains - predatory lenders, oil companies, polluters, illegal immigrants, politicians, Iran, China, greedy CEOs, car companies, and so on. …

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