What congressional 'Downton Abbey' office says about Washington culture

Rep. Aaron Schock has decorated his office with a 'Downton Abbey' theme. Yes, there are pheasant feathers. Yes, there are calls for an inquiry.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (l.) walks with Rep. Aaron Schock (R) of Illinois on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this year. Representative Schock has decorated his Capitol office with Edwardian elegance.

It’s true – Rep. Aaron Schock (R) of Illinois has new office décor that was inspired by the post-Edwardian era luxury shown in “Downton Abbey.”

The walls are dark red, reminiscent of dyed Morocco leather. The trim is white and gold and paintings of (probably notional) old ancestors, in ornate gold frames, are scattered decoratively around the walls.

Perhaps the highlight is the arrangement of pheasant feathers on the reception table. The whole effect is positively Masterpiece Theateresque.

Ben Terris of The Washington Post broke this story earlier in the week. He stuck his head in, started taking photos, and then got invited in by the interior decorator who arranged the rooms, Annie Brahler.

There followed a strange interlude where Representative Schock’s communications director, Benjamin Cole, tried to keep a lid on the story. He threatened, he negotiated, and he pleaded. Ultimately he was unsuccessful.

Since then the story has received a lot of attention. We think that, in the end, this episode says a number of things about Washington culture itself.

First, beige rules. Most congressional offices are beige, or light yellow, which is really only beige with a bit of vim. Furniture puts the “non” in “nondescript.” Decoration consists of a bowl of nuts from a packing plant back in the district.

Put in a gilt mirror with an acanthus leaf and leather Chesterfield and the next thing you know you’re in the most-read story on the Post website. You’re getting angry e-mails from home wondering how many taxpayer dollars you’ve spent. Watchdog groups are demanding investigations to see if you’ve violated House rules.

Second, not spending can get you in trouble almost as fast as spending too much.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on Tuesday filed a complaint that the aforementioned Ms. Brahler decorated Shock’s digs for free. (She mentioned this to the Post.)

See, House members are prohibited from taking gifts worth more than a small amount of money. That includes services. Whoops.

For what it’s worth, USA Today has figured out that since being elected in 2008 Schock has spent about $100,000 of taxpayer bucks allotted to maintain his office furniture. That’s a lot.

By way of contrast, the Post figured out the top furniture and drapery spenders for just the past Congress. The top was Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who spent about $26,000.

Shock was not on the list because most of his $100,000 expenditure occurred when he first took office. The pheasant feathers, et al, aren’t yet listed because figures haven’t been filed for the new, 114th Congress.

Finally, this reminds of Richard Nixon.

Truthfully, most events in Washington do. Mr. Nixon’s time in office contained multitudes; it was astoundingly eventful; it was a gift to journalists that keeps on giving.

But Nixon had his own unfortunate brush with Old World aesthetics. In 1970 Nixon decided that the uniforms worn by White House guards were too plain. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was coming to town and Nixon wanted to show the PM some pageantry.

So Nixon ordered up new uniforms inspired by those he’d seen in Europe. They were double-breasted white tunics, with lots of gold braid, starred epaulets, and high plastic hats.

They were hideous. They looked like something the people of “Downton Abbey” would have seen in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The Buffalo News said the guards looked like old time movie ushers. Others said they looked like extras from the “Student Prince” or perhaps an armed marching band.

They were gone in two weeks. Will the pheasant feathers in Schock’s office last longer?

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