First lady wants lots of visitors but leave the cigarettes behind

February 02, 1993|By Marian Burros | Marian Burros,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton says she and President Clinton hope to open the White House to all Americans. But they won't let them smoke.

In her first interview since the inauguration, Mrs. Clinton agreed to speak last Friday only about the traditional duty of the first lady -- taking care of her household -- and not about her responsibilities for helping shape policy in such areas as health care.

In addition to banning smoking entirely in the White House, she said she and the president wanted to make people feel more a part of government by opening the mansion to the public on occasion.

There may be more open houses like the one held the day after the inauguration, she said. There may also be daylong meetings to which ordinary Americans will be invited and events involving children and families.

In a departure from past practice, Mrs. Clinton said, the White House kitchen will emphasize American food rather than a French-style menu, and restaurant chefs will be consulted about menus. And in a reversal of policy from the Bush administration, broccoli will be on White House menus.

Since November 1991, smoking has been prohibited in the kitchen, locker rooms and maintenance areas of the White House, but not in the family quarters, offices or public rooms. Mrs. Clinton said she and the president, neither of whom ever smoked, hoped to make the ban complete.

"We did it at the Governor's Mansion, and it took some people some adjusting," she said. "We tried not to be too harsh about it. The big issue about health is so paramount to me that I don't think we should permit smoking."

Mrs. Clinton, wearing the muted plaid suit she wore on Inauguration Day, sat on a red-and-gold brocade sofa in the Red Room, which is furnished with American Empire pieces dating to 1810. Surveying the items in the room, she added that she felt even more strongly about banning smoking "because of the atmosphere here, and the age of the house, the furnishings."

If visitors to the White House want to smoke, she said, they will have to go outdoors.

The smoking ban is one change the Clintons hope to institute in an effort "to put our own identity, our own stamp on what happens at the White House now," Mrs. Clinton said.

Among other things, Mrs. Clinton hopes to find other ways to use the museumlike public rooms on the first floor of the White House, traditionally used for formal entertaining.

"We're trying to make the whole house usable," Mrs. Clinton said. "We want to combine the best of the traditional values of formal entertaining with more informal, family-oriented, creative ways of using it. And then we want to use the grounds."

On inaugural night, the Clintons' 12-year-old daughter, Chelsea, and 30 of her friends roamed through the stately public rooms on a historical scavenger hunt, looking for the answers to clues like "the room where it is sometimes said a ghost has been seen" (the Lincoln bedroom) and "the painting with the yellow bird" ("Still Life With Fruit, Goblet and Canary" by Severin Roesen, in the Red Room).

In addition to the usual array of formal dinners and receptions, the Clintons hope to entertain families more informally.

"Several people have told me that one of the most meaningful events they could attend would be something at the White House with their children," Mrs. Clinton said. "Those are not the usual kind of events. From the very first day my husband became president, he has tried to think of ways to open the White House."

Actually, from long before that. In an interview last April, Mrs. Clinton said that if her husband were elected, they would like to invite ordinary Americans to the White House.

"Maybe we could have a random lottery in every state, so you wouldn't be just inviting the well-known and business people," she said at the time. "You'd do it far enough in advance so all the security issues could be taken care of. Then you'd invite them and their families to the White House, and you'd have a program like a mini-town meeting, and they would spend two hours telling the president what was happening.

"And then we'd have a big meal, everybody would visit, and we'd give them a tour and show them what the White House looked like. There's got to be ways to get people reconnected to their president and their government again."

Like most presidents before him, Mr. Clinton will look for ways to escape the confines of the White House. When it was suggested that the president wouldn't be going out for meals as often as he did in Little Rock, Ark., Mrs. Clinton said, "Well, don't hold your breath. I wouldn't take a total bet on that. If there's a way we can figure that out, we'll be going out."

Would that include sneaking out, leaving the news media in the dark about where the Clintons were going? "Yep," she said.

For the moment, Mrs. Clinton is more interested in getting some sleep. Like millions of Americans who juggle many responsibilities, the Clintons don't get enough.

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