The men and women that occupy the office of the President can only do so for one or two terms. However, there is a constant, a visual reminder of America’s enduring republic – The White House. Our nation’s first president, George Washington, laid the cornerstone of this unique building in 1792 and oversaw the construction of the home designed by architect James Hoban.
20 years ago, America faced a similar situation, not knowing the outcome of the presidential election on election night but we still celebrated the 200th anniversary of John Adams moving into the White House. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton (its current residents) were committed to hosting an event that honored the White House’s historical importance despite the Florida recount lurking in the background and the ambiguity of who would be moving in next. It was an event fitting for the most symbolic building in the world, the White House, celebrating a truly remarkable structure that acts simultaneously as an office, home and public museum.
Joining the Clintons for this historic affair and bringing unity and reverence for the American people during a time of great political turmoil, were Lady Bird Johnson, President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, and President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. (President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan did not attend due to his battle with Alzheimer’s.)
The evening was held in the East Room, where Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of President and Mrs. Washington still hang. Hugh Sidney, an American journalist, presidential historian, and president of the White House Historical Association, acted as moderator for the toasts and introduced all of the presidents. Each president knew that they needed to come together to celebrate this symbolic building despite their personal wishes and desires as to which way the election should swing.
Gerald Ford was the first president to give a toast and he thanked the Clintons and the White House Historical Association “for welcoming back some former tenants of America’s most distinguished public housing.” With his distinct humor he proved the point that the White House is bigger than the person that resides in it and that it is truly the home of the America people. It has stood the test of time including war, fire, remodeling and so much more as a lasting symbol of the center of our nation’s identity that mirrors our country in every way and we can take refuge in it.
“The White House has never belonged to any one of us. It will always belong to all of us,” President Clinton said. “We do not yet know who the next occupant will be. But we can honor the service. The lives of the families of the candidates who contested this election…And we Americans should take great pride in the fact that this contest was fought to a close conclusion. It is not a symbol of division of our nation, but the vitality of our debate. And it will be resolved in a way consistent with the vitality of our enduring Constitution and laws.”
President George H. W. Bush, who personally knew what was at stake not just as a former president but also as a father of one of two future presidents facing the contested election delivered the most poignant message of the night. “Many years ago, Henry Longfellow foretold our country’s story destiny in confident terms with his epic ‘O Ship of State,’ which in my view is an apt description for the White House. More often than not it necessarily falls to this vessel of state craft to set the pace and lead the way and push back the frontiers of progress and prosperity and peace. 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 that democracy thrives when the gusts and gales of challenge and adversity fill its sales 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. In the immortal words of Longfellow, ‘Sail on, oh ship of state. Sail on, oh union strong and great.’”
At a time when the American people need to be assured that our republic will endure, and the election will be settled with a definite leader, the words of these former commanders in chief can remind us of America’s great legacy. No matter what happens, America’s unique transition of power will continue, and we will remain the greatest country and an inhabitant will be at America’s home on January 20. They will join or remain on the list of first families to live, work, entertain, and play host to four more years of traditions in this beautiful home commissioned by George Washington.