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White House touch due at Washington College; Clinton speech-writer to run history center


WASHINGTON -- On the wall of Edward L. Widmer's office in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House is a picture of President Clinton standing on a stage before a half-million people in a stadium in Ghana in 1998.

It was the biggest crowd Clinton ever addressed, and his speech was crafted by Widmer -- heady stuff for a historian who probably once thought his words were destined to be heard by a couple dozen people in a seminar at a history conference.

Ted Widmer, a soft-spoken 37-year-old who, as special assistant to the president, writes Clinton's foreign policy speeches, was named the first director of the C. V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College yesterday.

At a ceremony in Annapolis, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the center is a place that "will engage students in the broad study of our national heritage and our national identity. They will analyze how in the brief span of 224 years, the United States has evolved into a great world power."

The new center at the school in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore appears to be a perfect stage for the wide-ranging interests of Widmer, who writes on everything from New York in the 1840s to rock and roll, publishing in academic journals, George magazine and newspapers in his hometown of Providence, R.I.

"He is a person with a strong academic background who cannot just be put into an academic box," says Washington College's academic dean, Joachim Scholz. "Having somebody who can write about Jacksonian New York as well as drumming gave us an assurance that he would not forget about the broad spectrum, the breadth of the American experience."

Widmer says it is appropriate that the center will be housed in the renovated Custom House, one of Chestertown's most historic buildings, which was given to the college about five years ago. It sits on the Chester River at the end of the main street through town where it oversaw the sea trade of what was a very important port in the 18th century.

"Ships were in and out, not just from Maryland and Virginia, I'm sure, but from the Caribbean, from Europe, Africa and South America," Widmer says. "Ideas and goods were coming in and going out. I like the idea of the building returning to its historic role."

Widmer is the son of academics, both historians of China. "My way of rebellion was to be really excited about American history," he says.

But he is quick to point out that he did not get his Harvard University degrees -- B.A., M.A., Ph.D. -- from the history department. His undergraduate major was in history and literature; his graduate degree was from the American Civilization department.

"I had been at Harvard a long time," Widmer says -- the better part of 17 years between his schooling and teaching for four years -- when a chance acquaintance led to a call to join the White House staff in 1997.

"I think the connections I made here will be useful for me personally and for the college in my new position," he says. "I hope to bring some of the excitement of the White House to Chestertown."

His experience in Washington has been tumultuous for Widmer's personal life -- he puts in four-day weeks, commuting from Cambridge, Mass., where his wife, Mary Rhinelander, lives with their 4-year-old son, Freddy. But the experience has given Widmer a different view of American history.

"I learned how important foreign policy is to America's daily life," he says.

Exactly what the center will become is largely in Widmer's hands. It will certainly have an academic aspect, a place where courses are taught, issues are studied and papers are prepared.

"We think we have a special obligation to study the ideas of the founders of this nation," says John S. Toll, Washington College's president. "After all, George Washington played a key role in developing this college. He gave it his name, its first big gift, he was on the board and, after he was elected president, received an honorary degree.

"We think it is important that colleges and universities increase the study of the ideas on which this nation was based, how they have been interpreted and applied over the centuries," Toll says.

Widmer thinks it will be a place where he can pursue his wide-ranging interests. His first book, "Young America," examined attempts by civic leaders to get young people enthusiastic about the American idea in New York in the 1840s. His next book will be about the beginnings of African-American music in the colonial period.

The college sees the center as a place where students can interact with people who have put their interest in history to work in non-academic settings -- people from places like Williamsburg, museums like Winterthur, television networks like the History Channel, magazines like American Heritage.

Widmer is due to start in Chestertown July 1, but his full-time presence might be delayed by work on Clinton's presidential library. "I'm the only historian on staff, so they called me," he says with a what-am-I-supposed-to-do expression.

That doesn't bother officials at Washington College. "Being involved in the shaping of a presidential library, we see that as an opportunity for the center, not a detriment," says Scholz.

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