Hillary Clinton returns to the White House to honor recipients of prestigious arts prize
Washington — Jill Biden and Hillary Clinton, the first lady and a former first lady, on Tuesday introduced the recipients of a prestigious Japanese award for lifetime achievement in the arts, an event that led Clinton to her first public appearance at the White House since the Obama administration.
“Secretary Clinton, Hillary, it's an honor to welcome you back to the White House,” Biden said as an audience dotted with Clinton administration alums and some celebrities, including actor Debra Messing and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, burst into loud applause.
“Wow, you are so loved,” Biden exclaimed. "Your lifetime of work has left an indelible mark on this country. Thank you for always doing all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can.”
Clinton introduced the recipients of the Praemium Imperiale, which is awarded annually by the Japan Arts Association in the categories of music, theater/film, painting, sculpture and architecture.
Three laureates who attended are trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, painter Vija Celmins and theater director Robert Wilson. Sculptor Olafur Eliasson and architect Diébédo Francis Kéré were absent. All five will be honored at a ceremony in Tokyo next month.
Clinton is the U.S. adviser to the Praemium Imperiale, helping select its laureates. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton hosted a ceremony like Tuesday's.
Jill Biden said the artists being honored “invite us to join a conversation with the world, to step beyond the limits of our imagination.”
Clinton quoted President Joe Biden, who once said the arts “invigorate and strengthen democracy.”
“At a time when so much is happening to change the ways that we work and live and how we connect with one another, how we relate to the rest of the world, it's so important for us to recognize the critical role that the arts play in helping us understand our past and present while inspiring us to create a better future,” Clinton said.
Her appearance was a reminder of her long association with one of America's most famous buildings.
In her White House years, Clinton was a wife, a mother and the nation’s hostess, but also a wronged spouse and the head of a national health care task force. In later years, she became a visiting senator and Cabinet member, but never attained the long-sought role of Madam President.
Early on as first lady, she held a rare news conference where she was grilled about the Clintons' past real estate dealings, declaring that she had been “rezoned” out of her sphere of privacy.
Former aides expected her return Tuesday to be sentimental.
“I have to imagine she’s really looking forward to being back and being back with the Bidens, who she’s been close to for a long time,” said Lisa Caputo, who was Clinton’s White House press secretary.
Clinton's ties to the White House bracket her time as first lady.
Early visits came when she accompanied Bill Clinton to the executive mansion, when he was Arkansas governor from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, for annual receptions for the nation’s governors.
She was a regular at the White House in her post-first lady roles as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state, a position that came with a permanent seat next to the president at Cabinet meetings.
Twice she sought the ultimate White House perch, campaigning in 2008 and again in 2016 to become the first woman elected president. She fell short each time, and kept her distance from the White House during the Trump years.
Ellen Fitzpatrick, emeritus professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, said going back to the White House evokes memories for any former first lady.
She recalled Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip back with her children years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The former first lady later told President Richard Nixon in a note that a day she had dreaded turned out to be one of the most precious she spent with her kids.
“I think for Hillary herself, I’m sure it will be quite a moment going back in,” said Fitzpatrick, author of “The Highest Glass Ceiling,” a book about women who run for president.
Clinton made some good and not-so-good White House memories.
“My eight years in the White House tested my faith and political beliefs, my marriage and our nation’s Constitution,” she wrote in “Living History,” her memoir. “I became a lightning rod for political and ideological battles waged over America’s future and a magnet for feelings, good or bad, about women’s choices and roles.”
In his first year in office, President Clinton made her head of a national task force charged with bringing health insurance to every American. No first lady had ever been responsible for shaping such major public policy. The work, largely done in secret, inevitably attracted criticism. The plan ultimately died without a vote in Congress.
In 1994, Clinton fielded questions for more than an hour in the East Room about her financial dealings as part of the Whitewater affair, an Arkansas real estate project the couple had lost money in and that federal authorities were investigating.
At one point, she said, “I’ve always believed in a zone of privacy, and I told a friend the other day that I feel after resisting for a long time that I’ve been rezoned.”
Another notable White House image of the Clintons came in 1998 after the president's sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky was exposed. As the family kept plans for a two-week vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, the Clintons walked across the South Lawn to the waiting helicopter with a teenaged Chelsea as a buffer between her parents.
Hillary Clinton also was among those in the Roosevelt Room at the White House when the president declared to the nation that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” She went on national television and blamed their political problems on a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.”
Her public approval ratings ticked upward as her marital woes played out in public.
After the president was acquitted during a Senate impeachment trial in January 1999, she was elected to a U.S. Senate seat from New York in 2000. For a short period, she went about her duties as a freshman lawmaker while closing out her chapter as first lady.
After Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination to then-fellow Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, he persuaded her to become his secretary of state. She again was a regular presence at the White House, with a seat next to Obama at the Cabinet table. She's prominent in the famous photo of officials crowded into the Situation Room when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
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