Resolute Desk

The Resolute desk

JFK, Jr. peeking out FDR's panel in the Resolute desk, circa 1962 (White House)

 

The President's Desk

Many presidents have used the Resolute desk in the Oval Office or the their study in the Residence. It was made from the timbers of HMS Resolute, an abandoned British ship discovered by an American vessel and returned to the Queen of England as a token of friendship and goodwill. When the ship was retired, Queen Victoria commissioned the desk from William Evenden, Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham, England, and presented to President Rutherford Hayes in 1880.

The desk has twice been modified from the original design. Franklin Roosevelt requested that the kneehole be fitted with a modesty panel carved with the presidential seal (he preferred people not see his leg braces and often placed a waste basket in front of his desks), but he did not live to see it installed. However, President Truman like the eagle motif and had it installed when he came into office in 1945. Much later, Ronald Reagan requested that the desk be raised on a 2" base to better accommodate him and other tall presidents.

Every president since Hayes—except Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford—has used the Resolute desk, although some chose to use it in their private study in the Residence. The desk was made famous in part by a photograph of John Kennedy at work while his son, John Jr., peeked out the front through the kneehole panel.

On the President's Desk

 

President Truman's motto

President Kennedy's SOS coconut (Kennedy Library)

What the president has on his desk is often symbolic of his style and experience.

Although he did not use the Resolute in the Oval Office, Harry Truman's desk was famous—he was well-known for having a plaque with a motto that read: "The Buck Stops Here." On more than one occasion, President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. In an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952, Truman said, "You know, it's easy for the 'Monday morning quarterback' to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you—and on my desk I have a motto which says The Buck Stops Here'—the decision has to be made." In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept in asserting that, "The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job." The other side of the sign read "I'm From Missouri," a reference to the skeptical nature of people from Truman's home state, often expressed as "I'm from Missouri—show me."

John Kennedy did use the Resolute, and his desk included a very special coconut paperweight. While he was serving in WW2 as commander of the PT109, his boat was hit by a Japanese destroyer and his crew was stranded in the Solomon Islands. Lieutenant John F. Kennedy carved this Coconut shell with a message and gave it to two natives to deliver to the PT base at Rendova so he and his crew would be rescued.  He later had the coconut shell encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight on his desk in the Oval Office. The message carved on coconut shell reads "NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY".

President Reagan and President Clinton both displayed the motto "It Can Be Done" on their Oval Office desks.