It's inevitable that any book containing the words "White House" and "entertaining" will generate a few Lincoln Bedroom jokes. If the author is Hillary Rodham Clinton . . . well--as they say in New York--puh-leeeze. Jay Leno, white courtesy phone.
Which is why the publication of the first lady's latest book is both politically and personally shrewd. "An Invitation to the White House: At Home With History," Clinton's first-person account of entertaining at the executive mansion, will be released by Simon & Schuster in late November--after her Senate campaign in New York and before she begins her last marathon of holiday parties at the mansion.
The timing allows Clinton to play out her roles as both no-nonsense politician and the nation's first hostess: The 324-page volume was completed late this summer, with the author scribbling party tips on yellow legal pads between stump speeches.
As news of the book has leaked out, some have expressed surprise that the very serious Clinton would do a fluffy "Martha Stewart Washington" book on entertaining. But the glossy coffee-table tome is much more than that. Officially, it's about the Clintons' "American" social style, illustrated with more than 300 photographs from public and private events. Unofficially, it's a fascinating glimpse at how a savvy administration maximized the vast symbolic power of the White House for the past eight years.
"It explains that a party at the White House is not just a party," says Lissa Muscatine, the first lady's press secretary. "There's an incredible historical backdrop for everything that happens."
When the Clintons walked into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Inauguration Day 1993, they were acutely aware of the mansion's legacy and three main functions: as a home for the first family, as the center of the U.S. presidency and as the site for more than a million visitors every year. On the day after they moved in, they held an open house for more than 2,500 people. What the Clintons understood perhaps better than any other inhabitants was the impact of receiving a heavy cream invitation with the words "The White House" in the upper left corner.
Ann Stock, who served as social secretary for almost five years, sat down with Hillary Clinton earlier that January. "One of the things we talked about was that both of them wanted the White House to be completely inclusive and reach out to all Americans," remembers Stock. "The president walked into the room and Hillary said, 'Isn't that right, Bill?' He said, 'I want to make the White House look like America.' That was my first marching order."
The second was to create a distinctly "American" style, which meant an American chef, cuisine, wine and service--a first, says Stock. The mansion also became a no-smoking house to protect the antiques.
In excerpts obtained by The Washington Post, the book's 10 chapters chronicle how the Clintons imposed that sensibility and style.
"Sometimes late at night," writes the first lady, "as I walk through the halls of the White House, I think of all the historic issues that have been debated and resolved under this roof, from Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis planning their expedition across the continent to John F. Kennedy planning to put a man on the moon. My husband and I have tried to use this stature of the White House to draw attention to issues confronting American families today such as child care, health care, education, youth violence and drug control. At bill signings, policy announcements and events designed to illustrate administration positions, we have not only invited government officials and renowned experts, but also the citizens whose lives and families are most directly affected by the president's actions."
And so there is a picture of the president signing the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, a picture with Princess Diana, Ralph Lauren and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and pictures of the president and first lady planting trees on the White House grounds in memory of the Oklahoma bombing victims.
And one of the book's most charming photos is a shot of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein, President Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Red Room, all straightening their ties before walking outside to sign the September 1995 Peace Accord.
All the political rhetoric is not nearly as interesting as the personal parts of the book, which include dozens of previously unpublished family photographs. The chapter "Making This House a Home" opens with a picture of the president romping with cat Socks, dog Buddy and nephew Tyler Clinton.
There is a photo from Chelsea's June 1997 high school graduation party, mentions of the pizza parties she threw for friends in the State Dining Room, the "bunking parties" (sleepovers) she hosted for college pals from Stanford and the revelation that Chelsea's favorite place to hang out in the residence is the upstairs solarium.
The president's favorite place? Well, one was the kitchen. "Our first official act was to convert what had been a chef's kitchen off the president's dining room into a livable kitchen." This is, writes the first lady, where the family catches breakfast and makes late-night raids on the refrigerator. When they actually sit down for a meal with family or friends, it's usually in the president's dining room adjacent to the little kitchen.
That was, of course, probably truer before Chelsea went off to Stanford and Hillary Clinton moved to New York.
There are stories and pictures of surprise birthday bashes for both the president and first lady and a wedding reception for political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin, as well as high school and college reunions. Barbecues and parties were also held at the White House pool, which is neatly camouflaged behind hedges next to the Oval Office.
The president was fond of hosting small get-togethers to watch the Super Bowl or the Arkansas Razorbacks, but he would most often call friends--often at the last minute--to watch a movie in the White House theater. Every Friday night he could manage it, Clinton would invite 15 to 20 people to watch a movie. The theater seats 47, but can squeeze in as many as 70.
The first lady writes that their favorite movie night was the preview of "Apollo 13," with John Glenn, director Ron Howard and the three stars of the movie: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Gary Sinise. She doesn't mention the night Paul Newman insisted on popping his own popcorn upstairs before the screening and serving it to the guests, but it probably figured in the Top 10.
The book spans from 1993 to early this year, illustrated with invitations, guest lists, menus, recipes and other details. For example, the book recounts the renovation of the Blue Room, one of the most famous receiving rooms on the state floor. The two-year project involved curators poring over fabric samples and wallpaper designs to replicate President Monroe's French Empire style, but Hillary Clinton changed Jackie Kennedy's light French blue to a rich royal shade.
The Blue Room is probably the favorite for guests to linger in during state dinners, still the most coveted invitation.
For decades, the State Dining Room, which seats about 125, was the site for most formal dinners. The Clintons were the first to routinely use the East Room, which allows a crowd of 260, and large tents on the South Lawn, which accommodate several hundred. Last month's dinner for Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the largest ever, with more than 700 guests. The official receiving line was eliminated because of the prime minister's bad knee; instead, the Clintons greeted guests in an informal line for almost two hours after the Indian delegation had departed--good politics and good hosts.
"The Clintons set the White House on its ear," says Neel Lattimore, former press secretary to the first lady. "I mean that in a great way: It was wonderful. They redefined the mold that had been in place for I don't know how many years. Every time someone said, 'It's never been done that way before,' they said, 'Why not?' "
The expansion allowed the White House to significantly increase the number of guests. "Although we now host as many as 400, narrowing down the final list is still a painstaking process," explains Clinton in her book. "Many months in advance, we send out a request for suggestions throughout the State Department and White House, and the Social Office compiles all of these lists into one grid, paying attention to factors such as whether a potential guest has attended a previous dinner."
The president and first lady make their selections to try to create a "good mix." Always invited: Vice President Gore and his wife, Tipper, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Even more exclusive--and controversial--are the invitations to stay overnight. From the beginning, the Clintons have hosted a constant stream of family, friends and supporters to their presidential slumber parties. And from the beginning, they have been questioned about it.
Last month, the White House released a list of 404 people who have stayed overnight since Hillary Clinton launched her Senate campaign last year. A spokesman for Clinton's campaign said that about 25 percent of the guests were donors who had collectively contributed more than $600,000 to her campaign or related committees, but denied that she was trading presidential hospitality for political support.
Critics charge that the Clintons have exploited the White House for partisan purposes. There have been thousands of Lincoln Bedroom jokes; the New York Post recently screamed, "WHITE HOUSE HILTON." Despite all the talk, Attorney General Janet Reno doesn't believe any laws have been broken. "If the president of the United States wants to invite somebody to stay at . . . what is, in effect, his home . . . he ought to be able to do it," she said.
In the book, the first lady emphasizes that the couple simply love to show off their cool digs. It's no secret to anyone at the White House that the president enjoys giving late-night tours of the mansion, complete with historical lectures. "He knows everything about everything in the White House," says Social Secretary Capricia Marshall, who has been dragged along as late as 2 a.m.
Marshall estimates that, counting all the dinners, receptions, teas and other events, the Clintons have invited more than 530,000 guests to the White House during their tenure.
When the book was first announced in April 1999, a Simon & Schuster spokesman said the first lady had been thinking about writing it for 18 months--long before she publicly announced her interest in the New York Senate race. Originally the book was scheduled to be released last year, but was postponed to include the final year of the Clinton administration--including events such as the millennium celebration--but also because Hillary Clinton wanted to do more herself, say her staff.
The fact that the publication date falls after the November election is a coincidence, says Muscatine: "She wanted to be able to include events from this year in the book, which did delay it. And she also had to spend time actually working on it, so it's coming out as early as it could."
Clinton has been writing during the past year, in between campaigning and other duties. She doesn't use a computer, preferring to write longhand and then editing on typed pages.
Writer Cheryl Merser assisted Clinton in the research. Merser is the author of "The Garden Design Book," "A Starter Garden: The Guide for the Horticulturally Hapless" and "Relax! It's Only Dinner."
When her name was announced, the New York Post trilled that she is "as much an expert on sex as she is on the subtleties of state dinners" because of Merser's 1983 book "Honorable Intentions," an '80s guide to love and romance with sexually explicit chapters. "It had passing references," says Merser.
Her role in this book included interviews with members of the White House staff. She met with Hillary Clinton twice, discussing how to pull the various elements of the book together as a showcase for American culture. "It was so thrilling to be in the White House and realize the devotion of the people who work there year after year," Merser says.
"An Invitation to the White House" will be Clinton's third book, following 1996's "It Takes a Village" and "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Letters to the First Pets." The deal for "Invitation" was negotiated with S&S trade division President Carolyn Reidy and Clinton lawyer Bob Barnett. The first lady received no advance; proceeds from the $35 book will go to the White House Historical Association.
The publisher is clearly hoping for another bestseller like "Village," which sold 450,000 hardback copies and 200,000 paperback, and won a Grammy Award for best spoken book. "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy" did less well--352,000--perhaps because the first lady had no time to promote it.
"Invitation" is expected in stores by Thanksgiving. The first lady has promised that she'll make appearances for the book after the election.
Next up, "An Invitation to the Senate"? Nah. Just doesn't have the same ring to it.