March 2, 2005

The Presidential Desk

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Behind every American president there is a resolute, organized member of the cabinet who goes unheralded by the media. This influential position is crucial in a republic since its tasks include contributions to cabinet debate, diplomatic disputes, the execution of laws and the image of a stable, reliable federal government. Who is it? The Secretary of the Interior? The Secretary of Commerce? Let’s have The American Heritage Dictionary explain who I’m referring to: “a piece of furniture with a writing surface and usually drawers or other compartments.” There are only two figures in the Oval Office who fit this description: Vice President Cheney and a desk.

The presidential desk may seem insignificant in the governmental administration of one of the world’s most prosperous and populous countries. But think what would happen if there wasn’t one. Indeed, until the presidency of James Monroe in 1817, no American president had the foresight to think of the utility of a desk. Imagine Thomas Jefferson signing bills on his crossed legs, trying not to smear ink! Imagine the immense fatigue that would accompany standing in the same spot for more than 12 hours every day for 4 years! Imagine the unbearable humiliation of being a world leader who’s too fucking stupid to own an item he clearly needs and that has existed for thousands of years!

As the world gets more complex and diverse, the desk’s role has expanded as well. Some critics have even theorized that a literal block of wood must have authored many of the current administration’s foreign and domestic policies. Sadly, few desks have been promoted to higher positions in government despite their comparatively impressive qualifications. As frequent guests of my weekly sherry parties will know, I am in the market for a desk and, since I try to model my life on the examples of our leaders, I am currently endeavoring to purchase The History Company’s new to-scale replica of the Presidential H.M.S. Resolute Desk (available at This will be a vast improvement over my current desk, which is less a desk and more of a cabernet. Certainly it would strengthen my stature on campus if I did my homework on one of the most historically and economically valuable desks in human history. (Of course, it would be much less expensive if I increased my popularity by buying vodka for high-schoolers, a tactic that Andrew Jackson used to win the hearts of soldiers during the Battle of New Orleans.)

But those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Santayana was referring to human catastrophes, and what is furniture if not one of the most horrifying aspects of modern existence? In fact, the story of the H.M.S. Resolute is one of the great fables of American history. The History Company’s press release psychotically informs prospective desk-owners that “for more than a century, nearly every American President has used a splendid desk that, in another life, sailed the seas,” showing that, besides selling vintage desk replicas, The History Company (or THC) has been dabbling in the traffic of psychotropic drugs. If we are to believe the site, Admiral Sir Edward Belcher directed the H.M.S. through the Northwest Passage searching for lost explorers. By 1852, everyone had abandoned the ship when it was discovered by American sailors and sent to Queen Victoria as a gift. Then, in 1879, the ship was destroyed, made into a clerical tool by Victoria and given back to the United States — as a gift — just in time for Rutherford B. Hayes to not care at all.

No wonder the desk is held in such high esteem! Its history is indeed a fitting allegory for the United States: a bunch of New Englanders take something that was never theirs, return it to the people they stole it from as a sign of friendship, then take it again even though it’s already destroyed, turning it into a place to do mundane paperwork. Then they sell replicas of a broken ship to millionaires.

The only modification of the desk occurred when FDR installed a central panel with the Presidential seal. This might have been intended as an elegant and subtle representation of the nobility of the presidency. But it wasn’t. It was just so visiting dignitaries wouldn’t see his handicap, further cementing FDR’s status as the actual Wizard of Oz. A rousing aesthetic depiction of American grandeur was actually just a mask for physical deformity. That’s the lesson and value of the Presidential desk: Something that looks trivial and boring may in fact be the gateway to a trivial and boring story involving Rutherford B. Hayes. Of course, in recent years, this desk of kings is familiar to most Americans as either the playpen for JFK, Jr. or the house of a million blow jobs, turning a collector’s item into a controversial novelty gag. E Pluribus Unum.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Arts and Entertainment Associate Editor