An unexpected haven from the political maelstrom

In the middle of a tense week of election bickering, the White House - during its 200th anniversary celebration - stood apart as a place of calm.

It could have been an awkward evening, to say the least.

Four United States presidents and five first ladies gathered in a historic reunion to celebrate the 200th birthday of the White House. Just what would the Bushes and Clintons say to each other, when their proteges were still locked in a battle over an election too close to call?

Far from being strange, or even tense, the gala in the executive mansion Thursday was, as former President Gerald Ford described it, "providential." Just when the nation needed a calming influence, a presidential quartet - whose members were once rivals - could sing together as statesmen.

And they did.

Literally, as they and their guests spontaneously rose from candlelit tables to the strains of "God Bless America." And rhetorically, as the presidents - Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Bill Clinton - reminded the nation of its capacity for healing, its enduring democracy, and its capable institutions.

Election 2000 "was not a symbol of the division of our nation, but of the vitality of our debate," said Mr. Clinton, who also acknowledged that the Bushes must be "rightly" proud of their son. "It will be resolved in a way consistent with the vitality of our enduring Constitution and laws," he said.

Mr. Bush did a little acknowledging of his own, referring to the first lady as "senator," and singling out their "secret weapon," daughter Chelsea.

But he also reminded the guests, who included Lady Bird Johnson, that "our democracy will go on‚ and the new president will become part of the continuum of service that sets our nation and this building apart."

This building, the columned White House, has a way of transforming its occupant, the presidents remarked. Each room is filled with reminders of the birth and growth of a nation and its principles. New tenants of the country's most distinguished public housing can't help but be impressed.

Mr. Carter found meaning in the small desk that Thomas Jefferson made and carried on the back of his horse when he traveled. He liked knowing where Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon said their prayers.

Clinton pointed to all the uses of the East Room, where that evening the guests were dining on foods common 200 years ago, served on a new set of china donated by the White House Historical Association.

The East Room started out as Abigail Adams's laundry room. It was later a space where President Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis could unroll their maps of an emerging country. And it was the place where Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

"I was constantly humbled by the inescapable presence of my predecessors - Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman, and Eisenhower," echoed Ford.

Although Clinton and Mr. Bush said the right things, even chatted and laughed with each other, the personification of bipartisanship was to be found in Ford and Carter. The two joked about how they were once bitter rivals, but now close friends - perhaps the most intimate friends in presidential history. And when it was Carter's turn at the lectern, he reached into his experience as an observer of overseas elections to remind the country of a reason to be optimistic.

"I've seen troubled elections," he said. "This is an unaccustomed event for Americans, but I think that all of us should remember that our system will prevail."

Interestingly, both presidents also mentioned how losing an election doesn't have to be a tragedy. "Take it from someone who knows all about losing a close election. There is life after Inauguration Day, with a new and an unexperienced previous joy," said Ford.

Ironically, Ford never wanted to be president, but was thrust into it when Nixon resigned. "I was amazed by America's capacity for self-healing," Ford said, admitting he so warmed to the job, he didn't want to leave - despite his subsequent loss to Carter.

Indeed, it seemed the rancor of the current race fell away amid the calm of the White House. As the Marine Band struck up an after-dinner waltz, Carter, nearly alone in the North Portico lobby, swept his wife onto the middle of the marble floor. Eyes closed, they danced cheek-to-cheek, undisturbed by the political storm.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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