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White House Celebrates 200 Years

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Four American presidents toasted 200 years of White House history as the old mansion buzzed over an election so close that no one knows the name of the next chief executive who will call the place home.

President Clinton raised his glass Thursday night to Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, to their wives and to two centuries of leadership and change that began in November 1800 when John Adams entered the damp, cold and unfinished house and got down to work.

``In ways both large and small, each and every one of you has cast your light upon this house and left it and your country brighter for it,'' Clinton said as he led the toasts at the beginning of the black-tie dinner.

At the dinner's close, Clinton told a reporter he had chatted with Bush about the role his son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, played in the national contest with Vice President Al Gore. ``I just told him I knew he was proud of his son and I said that whatever happens he ran a great campaign,'' Clinton said.

When the speeches rolled round, the election had its place in nearly every one.

``We Americans should take great pride in the fact that this contest was fought to a close conclusion,'' Clinton said. ``It is not a symbol of the divisions of our nation but (of) the vitality of our debate. And it will be resolved in a way consistent with the vitality of our enduring Constitution and laws.''

``Whatever happens this time, my pride and Barbara's pride knows no bounds,'' Bush said moments earlier. ``Moreover, our democracy will go on ... and the new president will become part of the continuum of service that sets our nation and this building apart.''

Carter called the unresolved election ``an unaccustomed event for Americans.''

``But I think all of us should remember that our system will prevail, that our nation is so great, so strong and the tradition is so embedded in the consciousness of all leaders here that we will survive this present uncertainty about the outcome of the election,'' Carter said.

Seated along the head table were four former first ladies: Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the late president Lyndon B. Johnson; Betty Ford; Rosalynn Carter; and Barbara Bush. Most of them chatted with Hillary Rodham Clinton, now the senator-elect from New York and the only first lady every to win high elective office.

Of the nation's living former presidents, only Ronald Reagan, afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, was unable to attend.

But it was current history that was on every tongue as the 190 guests, many of them luminaries of history and the arts, seated themselves at round tables in the East Room, repeated the latest news from the election recount in Florida and measured the chances of the two contestants.

If I knew who was going to win I'd be rich,'' said John Eisenhower, flashing a near replica of the trademark grin of his father, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

``I think we all have been following it; it's going to be a fascinating process,'' said Benjamin Adams, a seventh-generation grandson of John Adams, the first of the 40 presidents to live in the White House so far.

Another guest, historian Michael Beschloss, said he was fascinated by the fact that as in the historically tight election of 1876, a year when the presidential winner got significantly fewer popular votes than the loser, the state of Florida was a key to the puzzle.

``We historians always think there's a direct connection between ancient history and what's happening now,'' Beschloss said. ``Here, that seems to be the case.''

Hillary Clinton, slipping seamlessly from her 16-month Senate campaign into her role as first lady, displayed plates from the new privately purchased, $240,000 china service for 300 she helped design for the executive mansion. Unlike all other presidential china, the new bicentennial service depicts the White House in the center of each gold-edged plate.

The Fords and the Carters were spending the night as guests of the Clintons at the White House. Bush had been set to fly to Spain but remained in Washington, staying at the former president's guest house on Lafayette Square, when the aircraft he was to use developed mechanical problems.

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On the Net:

White House history: http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/glimpse/top.html
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