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Talking It Over
November 29, 2000
When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by the White House, and couldn't wait to see it. Finally, the summer I was 10, my family visited our nation's capital. We stood outside the fence along the south side, staring at one of the most beautiful houses I had ever seen -- the house that symbolizes America for the world.
Years later, whenever I flew into Washington, I would strain for a glimpse of its graceful, stately lines as the plane swept low over the Potomac. But I didn't go into the White House until 1977, when Bill and I were invited by President and Mrs. Carter to attend a dinner honoring the Prime Minister of Canada.
When Bill was governor of Arkansas, we were fortunate to return many times for the annual Governors' Dinners hosted by Presidents Reagan and Bush. I loved walking up to the East Wing portico, dressed in a formal gown. A social aide would hand us our table cards and escort us up to the State Floor where we would be greeted by the President and First Lady.
Nothing, however, could prepare me for the sense of awe I felt when my family arrived at the White House in 1993. Wherever we looked there was something -- a clock, a chandelier, a painting, a chair -- that told a story about the people and events that have shaped our country's history. In the hallways, we saw Presidents and First Ladies peering down from their official portraits. Outside our bedroom windows stood the grand magnolia planted by Andrew Jackson, which still blooms magnificently in the spring.
As I walked through the grand hallways, I could picture Dolley Madison, with dinner on the table, preparing to flee the oncoming British soldiers, and directing her servants to save the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. I could feel the presence of Abraham Lincoln as he worked on the Emancipation Proclamation, and Franklin Roosevelt as he held his fireside chats, or met with Winston Churchill to chart troop movements during World War II.
Earlier this month, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of this wonderful building. Not only the most enduring symbol of our democracy, the White House is a living museum for the best American art, culture, history and ideas, a tourist destination, the central office for the Chief Executive and his staff, and the place the President and his family call home.
During the last few years of my husband's administration, I felt so strongly that this national treasure -- often called the People's House -- should be shared with all Americans, that I began to formulate the ideas for a book. This month, in celebration of the 200th anniversary, I'm pleased to say that "An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History," has just been published.
Besides honoring this special birthday, and offering a glimpse inside for those who may never have the opportunity to visit, proceeds from the book will benefit the White House Historical Association, the organization that helps educate the public about the White House.
As our time here draws to a close, and I look through the pages of my book, I find myself growing more nostalgic. In the photos I see the faces of people from all walks of life whom Bill and I have welcomed to the White House -- from South African President Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana, to Special Olympian Sophia Wesolowsky and former foster child Dianna Collins, who has proved the power of adoption to create a permanent and loving family.
Although I think about all the historic events, the pieces of legislation signed, and the steps toward peace taken, I also remember all the personal moments we shared here -- the movies we watched, the birthdays we celebrated, the time we spent playing with our nephews, and our attempts to negotiate détente between Socks and Buddy -- and I realize just how much we have made this historic house a home.
Even after living here eight years, I still look at the White House with the same awe I felt as a little girl pressing my face up to the fence to get a better look. Sometimes I walk down to the Children's Garden on the South Lawn. There, in a shaded spot, is a pond with small handprints around it -- prints that were made by the grandchildren of the first families ever to have lived in the White House.
We have all left our handprints here -- in the history we have preserved and passed on, and in the new chapters we have written. It was the greatest privilege of my life to spend the last eight years at the White House -- truly at home with history.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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