Donald Trump’s first order of business in the Oval Office wasn’t replacing Obamacare, but replacing Obama’s muted red drapes with over-the-top gold curtains. It was red meat for Trump’s detractors, who derided the new décor as tacky, garish, “dictator chic” – not to mention his disrespect for the Obamas, who hadn’t even left Washington yet. It was terribly funny, but not for the reason you might think. Hiding behind those curtains is a story.
Between the election and the inauguration, Donald Trump frequently expressed gratitude for President Barack Obama’s gracious offer to smooth the transition with his counsel and guidance. However, now that he’s The President Donald, he’s trying to erase every last trace of his predecessor. At least, that’s how his critics interpret it.
Intrepid reporters provided photographic evidence: Friday morning, the red drapes were still hanging behind the Resolute desk. That evening, when Trump signed his first official documents, the backdrop was floor-to-ceiling gold, “reminiscent of Trump’s apartment inside Trump Tower.”
“Donald Trump Already Redecorated The Oval Office, And Of Course The Curtains Are Gold,” The Huffington Post proclaimed. “The president does love gold. Gold, gold, gold, gold.” “Trump likes his office dripping in gold,” declared The New York Post.
“It took just a few hours for President Donald Trump to give the Oval Office a makeover, including some fresh gold trim,” the traditionally more-restrained Associated Press reported, adding that there were “changes from floor to ceiling.” The Washington Post ran the AP’s story and headline.
“Everything’s gold with this guy,” a snickering Don Lemon remarked as CNN’s news team yucked it up over the “breaking news” of Trump’s Oval Office décor. Co-anchors Erin Burnett and Dana Bash were joking that “he was literally measuring the drapes.”
In the social media and on news threads, Trump opponents seized the opportunity to ridicule the incoming president’s lack of class: Bringing trashiness to the highest office in the land … Not gaudy and garish enough! Bring in more gold foil and paint … Gotta have that “dictator” touch.
Of course, there were the predictable comments about “golden shower curtains,” a reference to the recent FBI report containing details of Trump’s alleged cavorting in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes he hired to pee on a bed in which the Obamas supposedly had once slept.
If it seems like I’m going overboard about something as trivial as curtains, there’s a point to all this, so stay with me here …
As the inaugural balls were getting under way Friday evening, the home and design writer for the The Washington Post tweeted an “I told you so”:
Three days earlier, Koncius had written a story speculating about how Trump would redecorate. Her prediction of lots of gold fabric was a no-brainer, but she provided significant insight into the changes incoming presidents have made to the White House and, specifically, the Oval Office. Koncius knows what she’s talking about, because she was there. She has been writing about White House interior decorating for more than 25 years.
“Presidential designers in recent history have concentrated on giving the ultimate power office a one-day Inauguration Makeover to reflect the fact that a new occupant has taken charge,” Koncius wrote. “Kaki Hockersmith, the Clintons’ designer, feverishly replaced dozens of yards of Bush blue curtains with gold silk swags and brought back the 1880 Resolute Desk used by John F. Kennedy from storage.”
Whoa! You mean it wasn’t about Donald Trump’s towering ego or a neurotic need to banish Obama? It’s just what incoming presidents do? Trump did something normal? He’s not even the first president to have gold curtains.
All three presidents before Trump had gold curtains. Obama kept the gold brocade drapes commissioned by Laura Bush for nearly two years before replacing them with the red ones. Going farther back, Richard Nixon had bright yellow-gold drapes with matching sofas.
None, however, compared to Bill Clinton’s gold “power” curtains.
“Everyone wondered how [Hockersmith] could make such sweeping changes in one day,” Koncius wrote. “She says it was because then-first lady Barbara Bush ‘was very generous and gave us a lot of access in advance.’ But on Inauguration Day, she had to hustle to get to the White House and supervise all the installations she had planned. ‘Hillary Clinton insisted that I come to the swearing-in and she said she would arrange to get me back to the White House as soon as possible. She told us to go to a certain corner across from the Capitol and look for a military officer in a van. We were then cleared to go through every barricade throughout the parade route.”‘
In a long article for the Post the day after the Clintons left the White House in 2001, Koncius described the operation in detail:
Presidential designers in recent history have concentrated on giving the ultimate power office a one-day Inauguration Makeover to reflect the fact that a new occupant has taken charge.
“On Inauguration Day 1993, Nelson Wurz, draper to the president, stood patiently at the West Gate of the White House, waiting for Bill Clinton to be sworn in. When the call came that the oath of office had been administered, the gates parted and Wurz rushed to the Oval Office. He had only a few hours to complete his mission: to hang the lush golden presidential draperies he had just completed, and to do it before the Clintons came ‘home.’ … Hockersmith says the ‘strong gold damask’ happened to be a pattern once used by George Washington.
“That day was just the beginning of a presidential decorating marathon, as Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton swatched their way through more than 25 rooms … ”
In her 2001 book, An Invitation to the White House, Hillary Clinton wrote that she knew she would have to make “difficult choices” in redecorating, such as choosing “the perfect tone of blue” for the Blue Room. How she managed under such intense pressure for the two years it took to make that fateful decision, one can only imagine. However, it must have been invaluable experience for making strategic decisions in her political future, such as whether to invade Iraq and what to include in her biography, Hard Choices. One wrong turn of a phrase could sink her plans to return to the White House in 2009.
To prepare for her new responsibilities, Clinton reportedly read more than 40 books on White House history. But for all that, her choices were not well received. Her update of the infamous Lincoln Bedroom was widely panned, with snarky comments implying that the Clintons were hillbillies with common taste. Koncius called the burgundy curtains “worthy of ‘Gone With the Wind.'” An “underlit ‘Age of Innocence’ with a lot of makeup,” wrote her counterpart at The New York Times
The Independent‘s Rupert Cornwell went even further. “The carpet looks more like lounge bar grandeur than guest-room décor. In spite of the immaculate attention to detail, it all looks forbidding – uncomfortable and self-righteous.” Cornwell suggested that the fixation on historical detail was typical of commoners trying to establish their authority. “This veers dangerously close to the Ceausescu chic that is customarily shunned by liberals.” (Ceausescu was the Communist dictator of Romania before being overthrown in 1989 and executed by a firing squad.)
One of Laura Bush’s first projects was to strip the room and paint the walls white. Evidently, she found the “historically inappropriate” furniture appalling. She later worked with the White House Historical Association to do a complete renovation. However, George W. kept Bill Clinton’s gold drapes while waiting for his own remodel to be finished.
As for that “strong gold damask,” it retailed for around $230 per yard (about $380 in current dollars) and came from Scalamandré, the prestigious New York design house internationally known for historical restorations. The company’s eponymous founder, Franco Scalamandré, emigrated from Italy in 1923 to escape Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Within a few years, he was weaving fabrics for the du Pont family, the Hearst castle, and the Hoover administration. By the time Hockersmith turned to Scalamandré for the gold damask, the company had furnished fabrics to every successive White House.
In March 2004, the heir to Scalamandré’s company noted that George W. Bush used a competitor’s fabric for the drapes in his Oval Office makeover. “But we’ll get them back,” he said. He was right. If you haven’t guessed it by now, Trump’s “new” gold curtains aren’t new, nor are they his. And they really are Dem golden curtains.
It took Koncius less than 15 minutes to figure it out. If she didn’t have those curtains imprinted in her memory, she had only to look at the lead photo on her story three days earlier.
Few saw her tweet – or, if they did, they ignored it. The Washington Post didn’t even rely on its in-house authority on White House interior design, but ran a wire service story that provided no context. Meanwhile, CNN’s Burnett was blathering about how Trump himself measured the drapes. A few hours later, Koncius tweeted additional information:
The comments on Trump’s trashy decorating style assumed that he chose the gold curtains. We don’t know for sure, but there’s a good chance it was Melania Trump who “raided” the storage room. According to White House tradition, that’s the first lady’s role. Gold curtains were the obvious choice for her husband’s office, and perhaps she recognized the quality of the fabric. But did anyone tell her the history, and did it affect her choice? Maybe shy, quiet Melania is hiding a mischievous sense of humor? (I don’t for a minute buy that the pink “pussy bow” blouse she wore to the second presidential debate was “not intentional.”)
The conversation about Trump’s tacky taste continued for a day or so then died down, whether because no one honestly cares about the color of his curtains, or because they discovered their embarrassing mistake. I would have let it go, too, if not for the urgent message.
There are those whose hatred of Trump is visceral. They attack him personally for everything he says or doesn’t say, and everything he does or doesn’t do. According to these people, he deserves no respect or consideration whatsoever, because he is evil. If they got something wrong about him, they don’t see that it matters.
Their reaction to the gold curtains shows how irrational their hatred has made them. That the curtains were hanging in the Oval Office a few hours after Trump was inaugurated is a fact. But the Trump “resistance” spread hateful comments that not only weren’t factual, but were actually about their own champion. They’re now on the record as judging Hillary Clinton’s style as trashy and worthy of a dictator. The funny part is, that’s exactly what reviewers were suggesting at the time.
Blind hatred has dangerous consequences. With Hillary-haters on the opposite side behaving the same way, a bomb is waiting to go off. It will take very little to light the fuse.
So no, this is not just about curtains.
Lead images: President Trump in the Oval Office (right) and President Clinton’s décor (left). Photos courtesy of the White House Museum. (If you’re into this sort of the thing, the museum website has photos going all the way back to the Theodore Roosevelt administration.)