Washington's Sword, Harding's PJ's

Monday, November 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — In his old age, a year before his death, Thomas Jefferson placed a sheet of paper on the mahogany lap desk he had used for nearly a half-century and wrote a memo to the future.

The 1825 note, which Jefferson carefully attached to the underside of the hinged writing surface, noted that the desk had a link to the past so strong that it ``may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its great association with the Birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.''

Jefferson was right.

The lap desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 is now one of the prized possessions of the Smithsonian Institution. It stars in a new exhibit, ``Glorious Burden, The American Presidency,'' that brings together objects from the lives and times, joys and sorrows of all 41 of America's presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton.

The exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History opens on Nov. 15, just eight days after Americans choose a new president,

In deciding between Al Gore and George W. Bush, voters also will decide whose cufflinks, pajamas, neckties, family Bibles and political memorabilia will be most highly prized by Smithsonian curators as future presidential artifacts.

As it stands, the present exhibit is as close to current as the curators can make it.

Vying for attention are Clinton's first saxophone and the gold-striped robes Chief Justice William Rehnquist wore when the president was acquitted by the Senate on articles of impeachment.

There is a dentist's cast of Theodore Roosevelt's famous teeth, which dazzled early 20th century Americans. There is the wrenched and jimmied filing cabinet, looted by a team of White House ``plumbers'' out to steal the psychiatric records of Daniel Ellsburg, the Pentagon employee who enraged President Nixon by leaking to the press the secret history of the Vietnam war.

``This is not a biographical exhibit,'' says curator Harry Rubenstein, walking past spaces that will hold video screens and a presidential timeline and a corridor in which the voices of presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt can be heard taking the oath of office.

``The focus is on the development of the American presidency and its relationship to the American people,'' he says.

So there are sections on campaigning, inaugural celebrations; the president as chief, diplomat, commander in chief and shaper of domestic policy; on life in the White House; on presidential assassinations and public mourning; on relations with Congress and the press. The huge show ends, appropriately, with a section on the lives of former presidents.

Among the national treasures is the adjustable and portable, two-candle, brass candelabrum with polished reflector used by Washington to write his famous farewell address warning of the snares of excessive partisanship and political factionalism.

And from the nation's revolutionary beginnings is the gold-headed cane willed to Washington in 1790 by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote:

``My fine crab-tree walking stick, with a gold head curiously wrought in the form of the cap of liberty, I give to my friend and the friend of mankind, General Washington. If it were a sceptre he has merited it and would become it.''

The parade of artifacts includes:

—The stovepipe hat Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated; and a bloodstained cuff from a dress worn by actress Laura Keene when she cradled the president's head.

—A pair of fringed leather chaps worn by Theodore Roosevelt as a gentleman rancher in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, a pair of blue silk pajamas worn by Warren Harding and a pair of Chelsea Clinton's pink-silk ballet slippers.

—Radio network microphones used by Franklin D. Roosevelt for his Fireside Chats, and a cast of Lincoln's hands, taken just after he received the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, the right hand swollen from hundreds of handshakes.

— A sword Washington carried in the post-revolutionary uprising known as the Whiskey Rebellion and one of the oversized briefcases called ``the football'' in which President Clinton's military aides carry the coded orders needed in a military emergency.

Those two objects symbolize the evolution of military and presidential circumstances over the span of two centuries.

``It's a change in military scope from the power to keep the local peace to the power to literally change the world,'' says Lonnie Bunch, the museum's associate director.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for more than 30 years.


On the Net:http://americanhistory.si.edu/