Presents for the president Executive stuff: From chess sets to egg shells, gifts pour into the White House. Now, the years' bounty goes on display.

March 22, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

His president besieged in the media, Bill Pae felt summoned to action. He had to do something for the Commander-in-Chief.

fTC So he went into his workshop in Morrisville, Pa., two years ago, took some clay and made a couple of nice lapel pins smiling caricature portraits of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then he sent them to the White House with an encouraging note suggesting that being president must be tough.

Yes. For one thing, you have to figure out what to do with all this stuff people send you. Portraits in clay, wood, oil. Your face engraved on a whale's tooth or painted on stone. Elephants carved in wood, a bull in terra cotta.

Jimmy Carter got peanut stuff, Ronald Reagan got saddles and jellybean stuff. George Bush got a Desert Storm chess set. Bill Clinton gets saxophone stuff.

The National Archives in Washington reports that one day in 1939, inundated with stuff, President Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered these immortal words: "I have no more wall space."

Soon thereafter was born the National Archives Presidential Library System, which has accepted tens of thousands of pieces of executive bric-a-brac. Nearly 200 items from the gift collections of 12 presidents since Herbert Hoover will be displayed at the National Archives from today until Feb. 2, 1997.

So much stuff, so little space.

It was tough to choose items for the show, says exhibit curator Lisa Auel. At the last minute, they had to pull an item from the Carter display that had been given to the president by Barbara M. Frye of Detour, Md. She made the president a rhinestone-decorated ostrich egg shell that opened to reveal a meeting of the Carter cabinet.

"We were all heartsick when we realized the ostrich egg wouldn't fit in the case," says Ms. Auel.

The show features a few flashy presents from world leaders, but mostly humble offerings from Americans who found a letter or fax wouldn't do.

Mr. Pae, for example, once wrote a testy letter to President Carter "I guess I was getting tired of sitting in gas lines," he says. Then sometime in 1994, with news turning gloomy for President Clinton, Mr. Pae, a 49-year-old mail carrier who runs a sideline crafts business, decided words alone were not enough. He made the caricature pins.

"It was something to do to cheer him up," says Mr. Pae. He spent about 16 hours hunched over his workbench in his jeweler's glasses using dental instruments to sculpt Bill and Hillary. Imagine, all this and Mr. Pae didn't even vote for the guy.

The pins are among 10,000 to 15,000 gifts Mr. Clinton receives every year, says Ms. Auel, about the same as the last few presidents. That's enough to keep the White House staff busy, but too many for the president himself to see. Unless it's food or a plant, a live animal or some other perishable thing, Ms. Auel says they never give or throw gifts away. Wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, perhaps lose votes.

This annual deluge of gifts started with a trickle in George Washington's day. The story goes that Washington received the first presidential gift a few days after taking office in May 1789: a portrait of a friend's twin children named George and Martha.

In the decades to come, presidents would face the dilemma of what to do about gifts. How to accept without creating the appearance of corruption? How to refuse without insulting the giver?

The matter was settled in 1939 with the creation of the Presidential Library System, which accepts gifts as the property of the U.S. government. The rules say presidents may keep presents from foreign leaders valued under $225, domestic gifts under $250.

The foreign gifts are usually luxurious, always expressing good will. The stuff from Americans is alternately political and personal, and not necessarily friendly.

Lyndon Baines Johnson received a shovel in May 1967 from Neil Clark of Pine Bluff, Ark. Enclosed was a letter, which read in part: "I figure this shovel will come in handy to bury all the young American boys uselessly killed in Vietnam last week. I would personally like to see you have to dig the grave for every one of them."

As far as Ms. Auel could tell, Nixon never received a whittled set of burglary tools or any other gifts related to the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. He did receive a carved political cartoon plaque from Erich B. Falk of Saginaw, Mich., supporting the president's decision to expand the Vietnam War into Laos.

In 1973, Air Force Lt. Col. John A. Dramesi of New Jersey, who had been held prisoner in North Vietnam for six years, gave Nixon a napkin-sized American flag made of scraps and threads. The officer told Nixon in a note that the American POWs flew the flag at night in the prison compound.

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