Clinton's Token Gestures
By Michael Colton
"I'm willing to bet he gives a lot more than past presidents," says Marcia Hale, a former director of intergovernmental affairs who received several presents from the president. "He's quite thoughtful."
Many business etiquette experts question the appropriateness of his thoughtfulness for Lewinsky. According to unconfirmed news reports and statements by her lawyer, Lewinsky may have received several gifts from the president. Among the items mentioned: a hat pin, a brooch, a dress (or a long T-shirt, as her attorney described it), a copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and golf balls.
"You don't buy clothing for anyone in the workplace," says Marjorie Brody, the author of "The Complete Business Etiquette Handbook." "It's totally inappropriate."
Brody also frowned on the book. "A gift of poetry from an older man to a younger woman is very personal -- unless she was an English major." (Lewinsky majored in psychology.)
Adds Dorothea Johnson, the director of the Protocol School of Washington in McLean: "Everyone knows that book is usually given to lovers. I consider that a serious faux pas."
Most of the items that current and former White House aides report receiving from the president fall into the category of what Brody considers appropriate. In addition to special gifts like signed photos in sterling silver picture frames, he has been known to dispense inexpensive presents -- paperweights, bookmarks, candy -- for birthdays and holidays and to recognize hard work.
(Be wary of those who show off their special presidential pens: Some of the more generic trinkets are also available to any staffer at a gift shop run by the Secret Service in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building.)
Such presidential generosity is not new. Ronald Reagan gave out jelly beans, and Lyndon Johnson offered electric toothbrushes so people would think of him the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.
"It's pretty standard for presidents, at least since Eisenhower, to have some things stocked in mass to give away," says Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar. Richard Nixon was famous for tchotchkes like ashtrays and golf balls, Greenstein says, "but he was so inadept manually that he had great difficulty getting cuff links out of his drawer to give to people."
George Bush was big on flight jackets from Air Force One. And after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, John F. Kennedy gave top aides personalized silver Tiffany calendars to commemorate those tense October days.
There is no clear pattern to Clinton's gift giving; some high-ranking officials report never receiving anything from the leader of the Free World, while others received multiple gifts.
Susan Brophy, former deputy director of legislative affairs, said she received more than a half-dozen items over the years. "The president associated me with somebody who was Irish, and so he gave me a lot of things with an Irish theme," she said. Among her booty: an Irish knit hat and mittens, a vest, a mug and various books.
Most of these gifts, though, did not originate with him. "Oftentimes, he'll receive a gift -- something he wasn't able to use -- and if he thinks of you, he'll pass it on," says Brophy.
Clinton and his family receive about 15,000 gifts a year, and he is not required to report any gifts from individuals worth less than $250. This leaves a lot of gifts to give away.
Such gift giving is often casual, not calculated. Former Clinton communications director Don Baer says his 4-year-old son received one of these casual gifts, an ecological joke book. Baer also says that ties the president had received would stack up behind secretary Betty Currie's desk. "I'd go by and eyeball them," Baer says. "One time he gave me one because I had told Betty I liked it."
Another recipient of ties is press secretary Mike McCurry, who reported that they make up a substantial part of his wardrobe. "The only good ties I have are the ones that Bill Clinton gave me," he said. McCurry also noted he had received a parka from the president.
Most gifts arrive, not surprisingly, during the holidays. Last year, staffers in the speechwriting office received little boxes of chocolate; Baer remembers once receiving a windbreaker with the presidential seal.
For some light night-table reading, Hale once received a leather-bound, signed copy of all the president's speeches over the past year, a book she says many senior officials received. She also received birthday cards and a framed thank-you note after she organized a National Governors Association meeting.
Baer says there is no competition for presidential trinkets. "You usually wouldn't go around and say, 'Did you get something? Did you get something?' "
However, he adds, "It is an honor to get something from the president."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company