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Monumental Crusade for the First Lady

Hillary Rodham Clinton is championing the preservation and restoration of America's historic sites as she contemplates her own legacy.

July 14, 1998|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BALTIMORE — First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton embarked on a new crusade Monday, and its launch was as notable for the many qualities that she did not exhibit as for those she did.

Not once did Clinton flare with righteous indignation, as she often did during the health care reform debate of her husband's first term. Only once did she take a swipe at Republicans--and then only tangentially. In a rare show of camaraderie, she even included a small gaggle of reporters (normally held at arms' length) in her entourage.

And if there are any demons to be fingered in the first lady's latest cause, they were not Kenneth W. Starr or Monica S. Lewinsky but Father Time and Mother Nature.

As she contemplates her own legacy, Clinton has chosen to champion the preservation and restoration of America's historic monuments, artifacts and assorted sites, from a rapidly deteriorating Star-Spangled Banner to Thomas Edison's long-neglected laboratory in West Orange, N.J. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of America's most controversial first ladies would settle on such a traditional cause.

Yet even in Baltimore, as a straw-hatted Clinton happily praised a private-public effort to preserve the Francis Scott Key Monument, the controversy that has dogged her stormy 5 1/2 years in the White House was evident.

"This is the first thing she's done that I like," said an 82-year-old retiree who lives a block from the monument. "I'm a heritage person." Nearby, a registered nurse with two young children expressed admiration for the first lady but added: "This is a good thing to do but not as good as the health issue. I'm really sorry she dropped it."

The first lady's three-day train-and-bus journey through the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, which takes her to such little-heralded places as Harriet Tubman's house in Auburn, N.Y., ends Thursday in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where she will deliver a speech on the 150th anniversary of the first women's rights convention.

At each stop she will display one of her less-noticed traits--a remarkable ability to raise money.

She began the day at the Museum of American History in Washington, where she was joined by President Clinton in unveiling a $10-million corporate gift to help preserve the flag that inspired Key to compose the poem "Defense of Ft. McHenry," which became America's national anthem.

The donation by Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. is the largest in the history of the Smithsonian Institution. And it is coupled with an additional $5 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts and a $3-million personal gift by fashion designer Ralph Lauren to pay for an advertising campaign to increase public awareness of the first lady's campaign.

"Is this a great way to start the week or what?" the president asked, thanking Lauren, whose sweaters feature an American flag, for "this incredible act of generosity and, I think, foresight."

From Washington, Mrs. Clinton motored to Baltimore to visit a marble monument to Key that also needs restoration.

In an hourlong ceremony at the site, Target Stores announced it is donating about $62,000 to help restore the monument, which depicts Key and a soldier waving a flag.

The first lady appeared buoyant throughout the outdoor ceremony, basking in warm summer sun.

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At one point, she singled out for praise the National Endowment for the Arts, a major participant in the project, and then characterized the agency's critics--presumably congressional Republicans, who have vowed to kill the agency, although she did not name them--as "people who do not know what the NEA does."

Hailing the private-public nature of the campaign, she said: "What we have at stake is making it possible for every American to value what made this monument so important. . . . Let's remind ourselves of our common roots. Let's dedicate ourselves to American values and ideals of freedom and justice. And by honoring the past, we help define who we will be in the future. And that is a job all of us can undertake."

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