Object of the Week

Why Everyone Is Still So Fascinated With Trump’s Diet Coke Button

Explaining our obsession with the most banal gadget left in the Oval Office

Object of the Week is a new column exploring the objects a culture obsesses over and what that reveals about us.

A presidential transition requires a heady array of delicate and complex challenges and coordination, ensuring that the mighty apparatus that is the United States government moves forward as smoothly as possible. And this year, it has also brought a surprising amount of attention to a “Diet Coke button.”

The red button, built into a stained-wood box with a gold seal, about the size of a Kleenex package and often situated next to the phones on the Resolute Desk, was reportedly used by Donald Trump during his presidency to prompt a flunky to bring him a Diet Coke. Trivial as that may sound, this attracted particular attention when it appeared that Joe Biden, settling into the Oval Office, had gotten rid of the thing. Suddenly outsized significance was foisted onto an inanimate doohickey.

This reading of the object as childish, gauche, and embarrassing surely informed the interest in its apparent disappearance: Biden’s sleeves-up, middle-class persona could never tolerate such an absurd convenience gadget.

But let’s back up. The button box first attracted notice back in April 2017, when the Trump presidency was new. An Associated Press account of an interview with the leader of the free world mentioned that midway through the conversation he pushed a red button. “It didn’t trigger a nuclear launch or send advisers scurrying into the room,” the AP later recounted. “Instead, a White House butler walked in with a single glass of Diet Coke on a silver tray for the commander in chief.”

Trump appears to have shown off the button as a Diet Coke summoning machine to a number of reporters and interviewers at the time. Stephen Colbert was among those taking note. “He’s turning the Oval Office into an eight-year-old’s drawing of a dream treehouse,” the Late Night host snarked.

This reading of the object as childish, gauche, and embarrassing surely informed the interest in its apparent disappearance: Biden’s sleeves-up, middle-class persona could never tolerate such an absurd convenience gadget. Or perhaps the removal was simply a function of spite? In any case, the conclusion that “President Biden appears to have gotten rid of the Diet Coke button,” made news.

But Politico reports — and yes, there is actual press coverage of this sort of thing — that it’s not true: The button is still in the Oval Office. “Unfortunately,” this item continues, an unnamed official “wouldn’t say what Biden will use the button for.” (Another new detail: “A former Trump White House official said Trump didn’t actually use the famous button very often. He would usually just verbally ask the valets, who were around all day, for what he needed.”) Meanwhile, Business Insider points out the button box, in fact, dates back at least to the Barack Obama presidency, and was simply meant “to summon an aide whenever a president needs something.”

I’d say it connotes the Victorian “servant bells” that are familiar props from period dramas dating back to the original Upstairs, Downstairs — some posh swell pushes a button in one room, and a dedicated bell rings in the servants’ work quarters.

It’s not clear if narrowing its function to ordering a soda was a bit of Trump theatrics, but surely it’s that detail — the preposterous crossing of a Batcave accoutrement with the delivery of a banal product that is for some reason presented on a silver tray — that made this an object of fascination.

But instead of an eight-year-old’s treehouse, I’d say it connotes the Victorian “servant bells” that are familiar props from period dramas dating back to the original Upstairs, Downstairs — some posh swell pushes a button in one room, and a dedicated bell rings in the servants’ work quarters. This may strike one as super-classy, super-cringey, or both at the same time. (There’s a lingering fascination with the form, as evidenced by this Instructables video for anyone who wants to DIY their own Downton Abbey-style servant bell.)

You can imagine Trump, with his over-the-top gold-plated vision of “luxury,” deeply enjoying such a perk as a significant trapping of power. And you can imagine the rest of us rolling our eyes at the pretension.

But are we really so much better? Yes, the lazy expression of supposed class superiority surfaced by a service bell is both antiquated and gross. On the other hand, what do you do when you want to summon up a ride to the airport, or a dinner delivery, or an order of groceries? You push a button or two on your phone, that’s what you do. Who knows what Biden will do with the button, but it’s no shock he’s keeping it. Even a push-button soda-delivery service isn’t a relic of some tasteless past. It’s our world in a nutshell.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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