It's only eight years since I was last at the White House, but it seems like a hundred.
I don't frequent that place, but chanced to be there on Bill Clinton's last day. On one hand, it was a day of warm satisfaction, on the other hand, a dark, cold, ominous day.
My wife Dark Rain and I were in a group of scholars, historians, filmmakers, movers and shakers, and American Indians, who had spent years planning the upcoming 2003-06 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Clinton's very last White House function was in the hour just before George W. Bush and his gang arrived to take over. Many of us felt that the incoming administration was illegitimate and were grousing as we were ushered in by the Marine guards. But we were happy with what Clinton was about to do before leaving:
He would promote explorer William Clark posthumously to the Captain's rank that President Thomas Jefferson had promised him nearly two centuries before.
"Clinton's very last White House function was in the hour just before George W. Bush and his gang arrived to take over."
The designated leader of the expedition, Meriwether Lewis, had asked Jefferson to promote Lieutenant Clark to Captain, to serve as his co-leader. Lewis knew he needed Clark's courage, steadiness and experience with Indians to make the voyage succeed. But the Secretary of War didn't write the promotion, and so for the next three years and 10,000 adventurous miles, Lewis had to pretend that Clark was his equal in rank. Their troops were led to believe he was.
There to receive Clark's belated promotion was his great-great-great grandson Peyton "Bud" Clark, an engineer by trade and an excellent amateur historian, whom I'd met due to the publication 16 years earlier of my historical novel From Sea to Shining Sea, which Bud graciously referred to as "our family Bible."
Also in our delegation were my wife, as one of the three original Native American directors on the Bicentennial Commission; the late Stephen Ambrose, author of the bestselling biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage; documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, with his scriptwriter Dayton Duncan; several officials from historical and government agencies, and one of the noblest Indians I know, Gerard Baker of the National Park Service. I had no official capacity, but attended, uncomfortable in my one suit and necktie, as token storyteller and my wife's bodyguard.
I was also a charter member of the Charbonneau Society, an unofficial group jokingly defined as "the men who follow the women who follow Lewis and Clark." The said Charbonneau was husband of celebrated Shoshone Indian interpreter Sacagawea; our wives were top officers of the Bicentennial Commission and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, and we followed them around.
"Most special interest groups go to Washington to get favors. Ours went and got a bit of nice anachronism."
Sacagawea too was honored that day: Clinton posthumously named her an honorary Sergeant of the Army for her role in the expedition's success. Two attractive Indian women represented her. Amy Mossett of North Dakota had become the "poster girl" in all the national advertising. Representing Sacagawea's real family was Roseanne Abrahamson, a descendant of her own Shoshone tribe. Both slender young women wore beautifully fringed deerskin dresses and feathers in their hair. Perhaps in view of Clinton's notoriety, those beauties were never left alone in a room with him.
Say what you will about him, Clinton knows what to say and how best to say it. Though the White House at that moment was being infested with a pack of fools ready to deceive and disgrace America, during that last hour, in a crowded room, Clinton and his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave us the feeling that nothing was more important than honoring those historical heroes of ours and warming up the nation for the forthcoming Bicentennial. Most special interest groups go to Washington to get favors. Ours went and got a bit of nice anachronism.
"Sacagawea too was honored that day: Clinton posthumously named her an honorary Sergeant of the Army."
As we dispersed out into the streets of D.C. afterward, the sky was throbbing with the racket of helicopters coming and going, and police barricades diverted us along inconvenient routes. It wasn't just the January cold that made us shiver.
Jefferson sent the soldiers Lewis and Clark to begin expanding the United States across the whole continent. Two hundred years later, George W. Bush would use the Army to try to expand the U.S. empire into the oil-rich Middle East. That left little attention or funding for the Bicentennial, so it limped along mostly through the efforts of its original advocates and volunteers. After all, it was only education and culture.
The next time we went to Washington, in 2003, anti-Bush War protesters were swarming in, and the place felt like a police state. No enticement of any kind would have persuaded me to revisit the White House by then, except maybe a chance to plaster Dubya in mid-smirk with a steaming cow pie.
Now, this January 20, 2009, it would be great to see the face of Clark's slave, York, at news that the new president is of his race. If there's a White House ceremony posthumously recognizing York as a free man and the hero he was, I'll go there to see that.
(But only if the place has been thoroughly flushed, toilet-brushed and sanitized after the last eight years.)
James Alexander Thom can be reached through .