Read an Excerpt
I recall one of my first conversations with Hillary Clinton, shortly after she became First Lady. As we discussed some of the individuals featured in my two-volume history, First Ladies, her reverence for her predecessors and her love of the White House were clear, as was her sense of responsibility for the house and her awareness of the role she was to play.
Many people know Mrs. Clinton for her groundbreaking contributions to the policy arena. Fewer know the mark she has made on the responsibilities of the First Lady, honoring the traditions begun by those before her while bringing new ideas and innovations to the position. Mrs. Clinton has a natural affinity and affection for many of her predecessors; Dolley Madison is a particular favorite, and to hear Mrs. Clinton detail aspects of the legendary hostess's legacy is to see evidence of how an earlier life can reach across the decades to inspire another. The First Lady's description of Dolley Madison could be used to describe Mrs. Clinton herself: "Not only a wonderful hostess but a very skilled diplomat with a tremendous political ear, who could bring people together, have them work together, and then send them out feeling that they were charged with a mission."
Anyone who has been to one of the hundreds of the Clintons' parties can see how seriously Mrs. Clinton takes her role as hostess. To see her circulate through the crowds, pointing out objects of interest, posing for endless snapshots, and putting a reassuring arm around a nervous visitor, is to realize that her love of the house is rivaled only by the joy she gets in sharing it with people from all walks of life. I recall seeing hertalking to a circle of guests at an evening celebrating the life of Thomas Jefferson and excitedly leading them to see the new red carpet she had finally managed to have installed in the regal hall between the State Dining Room and the East Room. Afterwards she implored everyone to examine the gold centerpiece that has been in the White House collection since it was bought by James Monroe, and, of course, urged them all to indulge in the trays of desserts on the long table.
Like other First Ladies, Mrs. Clinton has been responsible for overseeing the menu at the White House, and one of her first acts was to reinstate the tradition of serving the finest regional American food. Jefferson insisted on serving fresh seafood from the Chesapeake Bay and locally grown vegetables, while the Coolidges offered many of their native New England specialties to guests: brown bread, cheddar cheese, codfish, and maple cookies. At one State Dinner, Mamie Eisenhower had pomme de brune listed on formal menus for dessert, but it was still her favorite Apple Brown Betty from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While the last several decades brought a decidedly European flavor to the White House table, Hillary Clinton decided it was time to bring in a top American-trained, American-born chef, change the table service from French to American, and use American-grown ingredients whenever possible. The results have been fine indeed.
The furnishings and decorations of the White House are the traditional purview of the First Lady. In this arena, Mrs. Clinton has been extraordinarily sensitive to preserving historical detail while modernizing rooms on the State Floor. Consider the Blue Room. In 1961 Mrs. Kennedy used original furniture purchased from France by the Monroes in her cream-and-blue refurbishment. The room, so well used during the next decade, became threadbare by 1972, and Pat Nixon undertook another refurbishing, changing the wall covering and the shade of blue of the draperies, but still maintaining the feel of the previous room. Twenty years later, it again required attention. When it was unveiled by Mrs. Clinton in 1995, the room was a rich sapphire blue that looked good when lighted for television, but still preserved the style and furniture of the Monroe era. Now the room as redone in 1972, 1961, or even 1917 might have been perfectly preserved for generations with glass or velvet ropes across the door, as in a museum, but this is the White House: Lively parties, Christmas receptions, solemn ceremonies, receiving lines, seated dinners, and photo sessions all take place in the Blue Room. It lives and thus it evolves. Mrs. Clinton understands this fine balance perfectly.
The use of the house as a national stage featuring the best contemporary entertainment also follows a White House custom: The Kennedys requested that the American Ballet Theater perform in the East Room; the Eisenhowers asked Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians to sing after a dinner; and Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson had Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass perform for them in the 1960s. The Clintons have carried on this long-standing tradition, showcasing performers from Isaac Stern to Eric Clapton.
Of course, like other first families, the Clintons have also established new traditions. While it was the Benjamin Harrison family that brought the first Christmas tree to the White House, the Clintons have opened the holiday season with acknowledgment of both Jewish and Muslim holy times. The Tafts used the lawn for the first known performance of Shakespeare at the White House, and other families gave garden parties and State Dinners in the Rose Garden, but the Clintons have found even more creative uses for the lawn as a space for sculpture exhibits, large-scale State Dinners (held in an elegant pavilion specially constructed for the events), picnics and cookouts, and even a carnival. By using this large space for entertaining, the Clintons have enabled large numbers of guests to enjoy the White House inside and out.
It is in furthering this rich tradition of making the White House the people's house that the Clintons have had their greatest impact. What makes the White House so different from the homes and palaces of other world leaders is the life that "the people" -- the tourists, the dinner guests, the staff, and the families -- bring to its old walls. Were it not for the people who come to the White House, it would simply be a museum, or a beautiful private estate. What makes the White House so special, so distinctly American, is that everyone -- however different, from whatever political party, age, or station in life -- can visit.
Since the 19th century, tourists have come to marvel at the paintings of past Presidents, ask the staff what the family eats for dinner, watch the delivery wagons come and go -- and even snip a curtain tassel for a souvenir. Gates and doors were flung open to the masses at weekly band concerts on the lawn, at the annual Independence Day reception, and for the Egg Roll on Easter Monday, an event still open to the public today. Although security concerns and costs limited the number of "come one, come all" events as the population grew in the 20th century, the Clintons have worked to keep the doors of the people's house open to a great diversity of Americans. Almost every guest list compiled by Hillary Clinton has included those who never thought they might one day receive an invitation to the White House. At these events, one can always expect to meet remarkable people from all walks of life who came to the attention of the Clintons because of a touching letter they had written or important work they had done in their own communities.
The Clintons have also followed the tradition of using the latest technology to bring the White House to those who cannot visit in person. Rutherford and Lucy Hayes were the first to permit a reporter into the private quarters. The Harrisons first allowed the rooms to be photographed for reprinting in newspapers and books. Harry Truman hosted the first televised tour for the nation. And, in 1993 the Clintons permitted C-SPAN (the cable television station that broadcasts political and historical programming to millions of homes) to cover the large State Dinner they hosted in honor of President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, in order to provide a glimpse of the effort that goes into such an event. Along with White House Social Secretary Ann Stock, Mrs. Clinton guided viewers through the earlier planning stages, showing everything from choosing the menu to the music to the table decorations. She also provided commentary on the political impact of what seem like simply "social" functions. Similarly, the Clintons have made frequent use of satellites to bring events to viewers around the world, and did the first cybercast events, including White House conferences and lectures by prominent Americans, to make them accessible to viewers at their home computers.
An Invitation to the White House is in keeping with this spirit. This book makes the rooms come alive -- one can almost taste the food and hear the music. It is not only informative, but inspiring. My own lifelong interest in the White House was prompted by reading books on the subject. I imagined what the rooms looked like, and what it would be like to attend an event there. A first visit to the White House as a young tourist left me feeling extraordinarily privileged and only deepened my interest in the people's house, sending me back to my books for further study. An Invitation to the White House will do the same for generations to come.
The Clinton Blue Room will someday be refurbished. New portraits with new faces will be hung on the walls. Other families will come and go. Whatever the length of their stay, each will leave their own mark on the White House in the centuries to follow. The Clintons certainly have, and the nation can be grateful.
Copyright © 2000 by White House Historical Association