Clinton’s ‘Closet’ to Keep Archivists Busy


Inside the vault that holds gifts from foreign heads of state, archivist Edward Quick unhooks bone clasps from velvet loops and opens a box presented to President Clinton by the People’s Republic of China.

He carefully removes several ornate watercolors bearing poems written in Chinese.

“We see in these items a bit about how these people depicted themselves and how they wanted to be perceived to other countries,” says Quick, an archivist for the Clinton presidential library being built here. “Many of these gifts are from some of the most famous people in the world.”

If the Smithsonian Institution is America’s attic, this is one of its closets--holding gifts, records and classified material collected during Clinton’s eight years as president. It’s the largest collection of U.S. presidential materials ever amassed.


Until the library complex is completed along the south bank of the Arkansas River, some 77 million pages of text, 75,000 gifts and artifacts and more than 2 million photographs will be stored a mile away in an Oldsmobile dealership turned into a 53,000-square-foot warehouse.

It has special heating and cooling systems, plus 24-hour security for classified documents.

Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend of the president and director of the library foundation, points to a white door with a punch-code security lock that leads into a 7,000-square-foot classified-materials storage unit.

“In the event of a tornado, that’s where we’re all going,” he says.

Everything is still sealed, except for a few gifts shown off briefly recently and some health care files opened to the public before Clinton left office.

“It’s like taking a walk through history because what you see are the personalities who made the news,” Rutherford says.

The collection was brought from Washington under military guard.

White boxes line shiny metal shelves labeled “First Lady,” “Seen by the President” and “Investigations of Gulf War Chemical and Biological Incidents.”


There’s also one tagged “White House Interns.” However, Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, seized by the FBI as part of Kenneth W. Starr’s Whitewater investigation, isn’t among the artifacts because it still belongs to the former intern.

Still, the story of Clinton’s impeachment will have to be told, Rutherford says.

“Our job is not to rewrite history. Our job is to preserve it,” he says.

In addition to official gifts Clinton received while in office, members of the public have made contributions. Some items are meant to be taken seriously, such as war medals sent by a decorated veteran who wanted to show his appreciation.

Other items are not taken so seriously--such as a subscription to Hustler magazine. Rutherford returned that one.

Among some of Rutherford’s favorite items are Clinton’s collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia and a silent film by a French photographer shot in the 1890s of Washington, Boston, Chicago and New York.

Rutherford says his favorite cartoon in the collection depicts Elvis and Clinton racing to a doughnut shop.

Other gifts include a nativity scene in a large mother-of-pearl star that was presented by Yasser Arafat, a saxophone from a Polish union leader, a Tour de France bicycle presented by the Postal Service, and 14,000 books, nearly 10,000 of which are signed by the authors.


It will be years after the library is open in 2003 or 2004 before everything is processed, says archivist Rhonda Wilson. “It won’t all be done in my lifetime,” she says.

Rutherford says the project is estimated to cost $200 million. He won’t release donor names yet.

But a Democratic source says that the library foundation received an estimated $450,000 from Denise Rich, ex-wife of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who was pardoned by Clinton. The disclosure came hours after a congressional committee investigating the pardon decided to subpoena records from Clinton’s presidential library fund.