by Brendan Beery
You can tell a lot about a person’s professional standing by looking at the chair behind his or her desk. As a general rule, there is a direct correlation between the height of a chair’s back and the prestige of the chair’s occupant. One doesn’t expect to see a file clerk in a chair like this:
But presidents are different. When a new president occupies the Oval Office, he gets to appoint the place to his liking. Obviously, that includes the chair. So a presidential desk chair does tell us something about its occupant’s psychology, not just his station. What does it say about a president when his primary concern is utility or comfort or style? And what does it say about a president when his primary concern is girth or length or height? Ahem.
With these questions in mind, here are my picks for the best and worst presidential desk chairs during my lifetime (from LBJ to the present). I’ll go from best to worst, and naturally, some commentary is included. Here goes:
1. Barack Obama’s chair. You knew it, right? But seriously … there is no classier desk chair in Oval Office lore. It is neither understated nor overdone. Its occupant must be someone who is never out of control, has some awareness about and respect for history, and has more concern for the office he holds than his own place in it.
2. Ronald Reagan’s chair. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming! Reagan’s chair was thoroughly unpretentious. He didn’t need a towering headrest to make himself feel transformative. This chair combined utility and comfort with a style that, by Oval Office standards, was also unique.
3. (Tie) The chairs of (in chronological order) Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George HW Bush. These presidents chose chairs that are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The chairs are unmistakably, ahem, straight. They are sturdy, about right in height, and equipped with functional headrests.
6. Bill Clinton’s chair. Bill went a little too academic for my taste. My first chair as a law prof looked just like this, and I like to think of the presidency as above my pay grade.
7. Richard Nixon’s chair. Not bad, but Nixon gets dinged for lack of originality.
8. Jimmy Carter’s chair. It should come as no surprise that Jimmy Carter, the anti-Evangelical (by today’s standards) who oozed humility and minimalism, chose a simple chair. It was a workmanlike chair, and it, like him, bespoke a kind of modesty that bordered on infirmity.
9. George W. Bush’s chair. This was a monstrosity. What was Bush trying compensate for? For Bush, being President of the United States wasn’t enough: he needed a massive tool that practically screamed, I am even bigger than you think: I am not under-equipped for the job.
These next three photos are your choices to answer the poll below. If Donald Trump is elected president, would he pick a, b, or c as his chair?