The irony was as rich as the truffle-and-duck consommé: Gathered at a gala dinner to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the White House on Nov. 9 were no fewer than four U.S. Presidents and five First Ladies. But dominating conversation among the 190 guests was the mystery surrounding the next resident of the nation's most historic home. "Everybody's talking about the election tonight," noted a weary Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, who said she had lost sleep amid the presidential cliff-hanger. "It's the first time I've come to the White House dead tired!" Others were simply stunned. Said opera star Jessye Norman, a friend of the Clintons': "It is quite an amazing moment in our history to be at the White House."

In fact, history was being made right there in the East Room. Seated together at the White House for the first time, in an alternating Republican-Democrat lineup, were Betty Ford, Jimmy Carter, Barbara Bush, Gerald Ford, the Clintons, Lady Bird Johnson, George Bush and Rosalynn Carter. (Former President Ronald Reagan, confined by Alzheimer's, did not attend, nor did his wife, Nancy, who was caring for him.) Initially the arrangement seemed tense—during a toast Presidents Clinton and Bush appeared to clink glasses somewhat abruptly—but partisan lines soon faded. There was Betty Ford congratulating the resident First Lady on her Senate win ("I think it's wonderful," she said); George Bush declaring Chelsea Clinton her mom's 'secret weapon"; and former Presidents Ford and Carter lavishing each other with praise. "Few observers," noted Ford, who lost the 1976 election to Carter, "would have predicted that Jimmy and I would become the closest of friends."

Fewer still would have predicted this year's topsy-turvy presidential contest. "I have been hypnotized!" exclaimed Elizabeth Taylor, who, like many others, had been invited as a return guest to the White House. While attendees feasted on a chocolate-and-caramel dessert—and admired the new Lenox White House china, which, like Nancy Reagan's pricey, controversy-provoking set, was privately funded—former President Carter reflected on the odd state of affairs. "I was asked the question, 'Don't you think it's strange, considering what's going on in Florida, that you and Bill Clinton will be attending an event tonight with Gerald Ford and George Bush?' " he recalled. "I said, 'I think that's a vivid demonstration of what the White House means to all of us.' "

Michelle Tauber
Susan Gray Gose and Sarajane Sparks in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Gray Gose,
  • Sarajane Sparks.