A Special House

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, August 9, 2017. Forty-three years ago today, one U.S. president departed the White House, resigning to avoid impeachment and conviction. Another, a Midwesterner who had never pursued national office, assumed his place.

The statements of both men on that somber summer day serve as a reminder that the United States has experienced political turbulence before. We’ve generally pulled out of it, it’s good to remember, sometimes stronger than before.

Gerald R. Ford acknowledged to the American people upon being sworn in as America’ 38th president that he understood it to be “an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.”

In a subtly calming observation, Ford added, “The oath that I have taken is the same oath that was taken by George Washington and by every president under the Constitution.”

One reason for America’s resilience is that men and women like Jerry Ford often seem to be standing in the breach when they are needed most. On this day in 1974, Ford reminded his fellow citizens that he had not sought the enormous responsibility before him, adding, “But I will not shirk it.”

There is something about the White House that evokes such sentiments in those chosen by the American people to live there. Donald J. Trump was recently quoted as calling the place “a dump.” Although Trump has a singularly tacky way of expressing himself, other presidents — and first ladies — have had similar thoughts about living in what is essentially public housing.

In her efforts to make the place habitable, Mary Todd Lincoln misappropriated money in ways that would be considered criminal today. A major scandal was averted at the time only because the exigencies of fighting the Civil War made Congress unwilling to pursue the facts. Jacqueline Kennedy was also appalled at the condition of the White House state rooms when she moved there in 1961. Her efforts at restoring them resulted in the creation of the White House Historical Association.

The first president to occupy the place, John Adams, moved there on November 1, 1800. He was hardly in a frame of mind to appreciate it. Adams was on the verge of losing his re-election bid to his former friend Thomas Jefferson. And his best pal, first lady Abigail Adams, was home in Massachusetts. What was there to love about the dwelling anyway? Unfinished, unfurnished, un-landscaped, and drafty, it really was a dump when John Adams first moved in.

Putting the best face on things, however, he dutifully wrote his wife a letter beneath the heading: “Presidents house. Washington City.”

“My dearest friend,” his letter to Abigail began, “we arrived here last night, or rather yesterday, at one o Clock and here we dined and Slept. The Building is in a State to be habitable. And now we wish for your Company.”

The nation’s second president concluded his brief missive with another poignant sentiment:

“Before I end my Letter I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

It is a prayer, to paraphrase Lincoln, that has not been answered fully. Yet, even Richard Nixon, who left office one step ahead of the posse, poignantly reminded Americans on his way out the door of how their own resilience existed in the form of the White House itself.

“I was thinking of it as we walked down this hall, and I was comparing it to some of the great houses of the world that I have been in,” Nixon said on August 9, 1974. “This isn’t the biggest house. Many, and most, in even smaller countries, are much bigger. This isn’t the finest house. Many in Europe, particularly, and in China, Asia, have paintings of great, great value, things that we just don’t have here and, probably, will never have until we are 1,000 years old or older.”

“But this is the best house,” Nixon added.

“It is the best house, because it has something far more important than numbers of people who serve, far more important than numbers of rooms or how big it is, far more important than numbers of magnificent pieces of art. This house has a great heart.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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