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Smithsonian Snubs Lewinsky's Dress

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 1999; Page C4

Consider Monica Lewinsky's famous Little Blue Dress.

All right, you'd rather not. But somebody has to. Specifically somebody at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.

On the one hand, the navy blue frock from the Gap is a key piece of evidence -- actually the key piece of evidence -- in the only presidential impeachment of the 20th century and the second in American history.

On the other hand, how would you exhibit it? Who would want to write the display labels? More to the point, who would want to read them?

"The museum has no present plans to acquire the Lewinsky dress" with its famous spots of presidential DNA, said museum spokeswoman Melinda Machado.

Wait a minute. Why not? Isn't it more important than Archie Bunker's chair from "All in the Family" or the leather jacket worn by The Fonz in "Happy Days" -- Smithsonian-treasured effluvia from the most disposable aspects of American culture?

"I don't think you can compare an item of popular culture with one of historical significance in quite that way," said Lonnie Bunch, the Museum of American History's assistant director for curatorial affairs. "We realize it is very important for us to document the impeachment of President Clinton. But we want to do so in the way that gives the public the best understanding of the impeachment . . . the best sense of it, and allows us to interpret it in the best way."

Bunch conceded that the blue dress has historical significance but said the museum frequently faces the dilemma of weighing the significance of such an object with questions of taste and appropriateness.

For example, he said, the museum has never made an effort to acquire the guns or bullets that killed Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, the blood-stained clothing of Martin Luther King Jr. or similarly sensational objects.

"If we have enough to tell the story," he said, "that's enough for us."

But he said the criteria for acquiring controversial items are somewhat fluid and can change over time. For example, four years ago the museum acquired the lunch counter from the Greensboro, N.C., dime store where the first civil rights sit-in was held in 1960. Even had its significance been apparent at the time, he said, any move to acquire it then would have injected the museum into the debate over civil rights.

Just where the Lewinsky dress is at present is not entirely clear. The office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr declined to comment on the matter. Former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova, however, said that under normal federal rules of evidence, the dress would remain in the custody of the FBI "as long as it might be used in any future legal proceeding."

Technically, however, it probably remains Lewinsky's property, he said, and her lawyers could petition for its return at some point. While "it's not exactly the Nixon papers," it does have "some donative value." Lewinsky told interviewer Barbara Walters that if she ever got the dress back, she'd burn it.

Curator Bunch conceded that any delay in acquiring historic artifacts like the Lewinsky dress can result in them "gravitating to collectors" and quickly becoming priced beyond the museum's means. Should Lewinsky or someone else offer to donate the dress to the Smithsonian, "I suppose we'd have to have a meeting" to discuss whether to accept it, he said.

DiGenova was skeptical.

"Somehow," he said, "I just can't see it on display with the first ladies' gowns."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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