Former Presidents Unite

  • Capital Connections ®
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  • November 15, 2000

by Karen Feld

Former Presidents Unite – The 200th Anniversary of the White House

Presidential election results were still in limbo but that didn’t stop former Presidents and First Ladies from celebrating- just two days after Election Day 2000– the 200th anniversary of The White House. The Clintons and their guests handled the situation with a degree of tension but lots of style. The President and “Senator Clinton,” as she was called throughout the evening, made everyone feel at home.

The 190 guests dined in the East Room on the new State Dinner and dessert service, and many were surprised to learn that that space was originally Abigail Adams’ laundry room. Later, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was planned there; Lincoln laid in State; LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act; and, 25 years ago, President Nixon delivered his ‘swan song’ after being forced to resign in the Watergate scandal, and Gerald Ford was sworn in as President – all in the East Room.

Historian Michael Beschloss said, “The advantage of being an historian is you know exactly what the dead did, but it’s harder to predict the living.” But that didn’t stop the guests from trying. “Every President puts his own stamp on the White House,” said senior White House reporter Helen Thomas.

Opera singer Jessye Norman, a veteran State Dinner guest said one thing is certain: “The Clintons have brought a relaxed elegance to The White House.” This evening was no different. “It’s wonderful to feel a part of this place and space, rather than feel like we’re in a museum,” she said. President Clinton said “The most important title in this House has been ‘citizen.'”

When The White House was built, it was the largest house in America. It’s not only a home but has been used as an office building, museum, TV studio, war room, and unofficial campaign headquarters.

When asked about his political ambitions, John Adams, an investment banker, and descendant of the former President, laughed “Not tonight, but everyone loves to toy with the idea.”

It was an evening of memories. Ambassador John Eisenhower said “When I lived her 40 years ago, I only had to go downstairs. I didn’t have to drive over.”

Some guests speculated on the difference in entertaining style in the next administration. “A State Dinner is a State Dinner,” said Ann Stock, former Social Secretary to Mrs. Clinton.. “Maybe the size will be different.” Georgetown hostess Kay Graham agreed, “The White House remains the same regardless of who occupies it.”

Most of the Washington guests demonstrated their political correctness, including HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and the next President of the University of Miami, who described the evening as “civilized.” But others didn’t seem the least bit concerned about appropriate White House protocol. Apparently still on “Bill Clinton time,” Elizabeth Taylor, who lived on “S” Street in Georgetown when she was married to Sen. John Warner, made a tardy entrance and early exit, but not before she managed to stuff as many paper cocktail napkins embossed with the White House name as she could into her evening bag. She chatted with dinner partner White House Chief of Staff John Podesta most of the evening, and quipped, “I’ve been hypnotized into a state of disbelief . Is there a statute of limitations on this election? Can we get back to ER?”

As Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter danced after dinner to the music of the Marine Band, Democratic contributor and philanthropist Walter Shorenstein strolled through the Green Room grumbling, “Hillary moved that painting. I want it moved back. I donated it.” He donated two works of art-a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolly Madison and a George Caleb Bingham– to The White House collection.

The power of CNN . . . The dress code for press covering the dinner was dark suit or tux but that didn’t stop one cameraman from wearing khaki’s. After some discussion, the Social Office let him stay, just this once. .. after all, he was from CNN, and the Clinton administration is drawing to a close.

An emotional Lady Bird Johnson left with daughter and son-in-law, Lynda and Chuck Robb; The Jimmy Carters and Gerald Fords, who have mended fences and become the closest of friends, joined the Clintons for a presidential slumber party later that evening. Helen Thomas said that’s one invitation even she’s eyeing.

President Bush, still not knowing if his son would be moving into that great House we were celebrating that evening, caught a late plane from Dulles to Spain -it was delayed which reminded him that he missed the perk of Air Force I — to go red-leg partridge hunting with King Juan Carlos of Spain, basketball coach Bobby Knight, and retired General Norman Schwarzkopf. No word as to whether the Bush family ate partridge instead of turkey this Thanksgiving.

The bi-partisan group of celebrants that evening are right, no matter who wins the White House, the tradition of “The Presidents’ House” goes on. Gerald Ford promised, “There is life after Inauguration day.” And even former President Bush said: “Names and faces may change, but this House endures.”

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