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Talking it Over
November 15, 2000
Last week, Americans went to the polls to cast their ballots in our national election. One week later, as I write this column, an extraordinary drama has unfolded, and we still do not know who the next President will be.
While there have been demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals and challenges to the vote cast in Florida, our constitution and our democracy continue to stand as a model to the world, just as they have for more than 200 years.
Last week, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the White House, my husband and I were profoundly honored to welcome three former Presidents, their wives and Lady Bird Johnson to a very special dinner. Never before have so many former Presidents and First Ladies gathered in the East Room. This would have been an extraordinary evening even under ordinary circumstances. But given these times, these four Presidents -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- reminded us of the power of our democracy to endure and thrive.
"Once again," President Gerald Ford, the first to speak, said, "the world's oldest republic has demonstrated the youthful vitality of its institutions and the ability and the necessity to come together after a hard-fought campaign. The clash of partisan political ideas does remain just that -- to be quickly followed by a peaceful transfer of authority."
President Carter, who has devoted the years since his presidency to human rights, concluded his remarks with these words: "The White House epitomizes for all Americans the stability and the greatness of peace and freedom and democracy and human rights not only for all Americans, but for all people in the world. And my dream is that the epitome of the high ideals of humankind expressed in physical terms in the White House will continue for another hundred or even a thousand years."
Presidents Carter and Ford both noted that during their hard-fought 1976 campaign, neither could have predicted the close relationship that they enjoy today. In fact, at a press conference earlier in the day, President Carter was asked whether he found it strange that he and my husband would be attending an event with Gerald Ford and George Bush. His response? "I think that's a vivid demonstration of what the White House and service in it means to all of us."
When it came time for President Bush to speak, every person in the room had to be wondering how he felt as he looked around the house, considering whether his own son would be its next occupant. Referring to the unsettled nature of the outcome, he talked about the timeless quality of the People's House:
"For 200 years and eight days, this old house had been buffeted by the winds of change and battered by the troubled waters of war. We've been favored by calm seas, too. But history tells us a democracy thrives when the gusts and gales of challenge and adversity fill its sails and compel it into action. And through it all, through trial and tribulation, as well as triumph, the White House has served as our nation's anchor to windward, a vision of constancy, a fortress of freedom, the repository of a billion American dreams. Age and the elements occasionally wear her down, but this house is forever renewed by the ageless fidelity of its founders, and the boundless promise of its future heirs."
It is impossible to walk down the halls of this living museum without being touched by the lives of all who have come before. President Ford talked about being "humbled by the inescapable presence of (his) predecessors -- Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower, and so many others who live in our imagination and our idealism." And he went on to talk about the roles the White House has played in American history -- office building, museum, cultural showcase, think tank, war room and the symbol of democracy. But most of all, he reminded us, "It is a home," -- an enduring tie that binds us to everyone who has lived and worked here before us.
My husband and I -- along with every other former resident -- know that the White House belongs to the people, not to any one of us. That is why we are here 200 years after John Adams became the first President to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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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