Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The Oval Office doesn't last

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon August 27, 2012
The living presidents gather in the Oval Office in January 2009, days before Barack Obama was sworn in.
The living presidents gather in the Oval Office in January 2009, days before Barack Obama was sworn in.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Oval Office for some the most coveted room in the nation; however transient
  • He says two fraught videos convey how ephemeral a president's time in the Oval Office is
  • One shows outtakes of interview with supremely confident JFK just months before he died
  • Other shows Nixon bantering awkwardly before resigning, ceding his yearned-for position

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- As rooms go, it's quite nice.

It's shaped like an egg. It has a well-tended garden a few feet out the door, and then an expanse of lawn leading to a fence.

It is certainly not the most ornate or luxurious room in the United States. Most five-star hotels have suites that out-glitter it. Any number of corporate CEOs boast offices that are larger and more lavishly outfitted.

But the Oval Office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington has always been the object of a singular kind of yearning. Mitt Romney fervently wants to move into it in January; Barack Obama just as fervently wants not to move out. This fall's presidential campaign, which begins in earnest with the Republican National Convention this week, will determine whether it will be Romney or Obama who gets his wish.

CNN Poll: Which candidate cares more about you?

Past funny convention moments
How influential are the conventions?
Tampa Mayor: Seamless in RNC, Isaac prep

Campaigns go by so quickly, and unfold so feverishly, that the combatants can be excused for not dwelling on the fact that each successive occupant of the Oval Office is, by definition, a transient.

It's temporary work, the presidency, and the Oval Office is the traditional home of the most high-level temps in the world.

I've been looking at two pieces of Oval Office video, each mesmerizing, even astonishing, in its own way. Neither was originally intended for public consumption. Each stars a man who is in his final weeks -- or in one case final hours -- as president.

One of the men knows it. The other has no idea.

The first video consists of outtakes from an interview that Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC News conducted with President John F. Kennedy on September 9, 1963. Huntley and Brinkley were at the apex of their fame and journalistic influence; their evening newscast, "The Huntley-Brinkley Report," was expanding from 15 to 30 minutes, and Kennedy had agreed to tape the Oval Office interview to launch the longer show.

The main interview had concluded. But on the tape, Kennedy tells Huntley and Brinkley that he is dissatisfied with some of the answers he gave them. He wants to do them over.

"There's one or two places we're a little ragged," he says to the newsmen.

And then, to be certain Huntley and Brinkley understand what he is asking for:

"Let's try and do it again and we'll see what comes out this time."

They accede; they redo the questions. And what comes across most strongly in the footage is the complete aura of command that Kennedy projects in that White House office. He appears filled with the Oval Office's inherent power and authority, and betrays not a smidgen of doubt that, for him, all of that will likely go on.

Neither Kennedy, nor Huntley and Brinkley, could have had any inkling that within 12 weeks he would be dead in Dallas, that the two newsmen would be covering his funeral, and that Lyndon Johnson, not he, would be sitting in this office. In the outtakes, Kennedy gives Brinkley advice on whether a new Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn movie is worth seeing; Kennedy seems supremely at home and at ease in that room. Leaving it looks to be the furthest thing from his mind.

The other piece of videotape features a president who knows that, within 24 hours, he will be leaving the Oval Office, and the presidency, ahead of schedule.

Most of us have seen Richard Nixon's resignation speech from the evening of August 8, 1974. But, in the five minutes before he addressed the nation, there was some calibrating of lights and checking of sound levels. Nixon was in the chair behind his desk for that. And it was all being recorded.

Through the amalgam of overwhelming emotions that had to have been coursing through him -- he knew what he would be saying to the citizens of the United States a few minutes later -- Nixon grins. It is as if he does not want the technicians to see his anguish

To an assistant who, for purposes of lighting adjustments, is sitting in the president's chair behind the Oval Office desk as Nixon enters the room, Nixon says: "Hey, you're better lookin' than I am. Why don't you stay here?" To the person operating the television camera: "Have you got an extra camera in case the lights go out?"

It's banter, in a dark American hour. He sit behind his desk and says: "All Secret Service, are there any Secret Service in the room? Out."

He gets no response, and because the camera is focused on Nixon we don't see the Secret Service agents. But it is clear that they do not depart, because Nixon says in their direction:

"You don't have to stay, do you?"

Then:

"You're required to?"

Finally:

"I'm just kidding you."

It is a difficult video to watch, because the moments are so raw. In its own way, it is even more revelatory than the resignation speech itself. Here is a man who worked all his life to make it to this room, and now he -- as Kennedy, in a very different context, did before him -- is leaving it earlier than he thought he would have to.

Kennedy and Nixon may be the stars of those videos, but the real star is the room itself -- it is the one aspect of the videos that is sustaining and permanent. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will battle all fall for the symbolic key to that room, even while knowing that, in the end, it will stop being theirs.

Presidents depart; the Oval Office remains. Which may be at the heart of the lure that has made so many people over the centuries hunger to be there, for however brief or long a stay.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT