The Magazine

Location, Location, Location

Clinton rents in Harlem

Feb 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 23 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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New York

OH, HE'S A BEAUT, Clinton. Every week, he fascinates and appalls. But he is also a predictable man -- even dully so. I wish I had called his move to Harlem; it seems so obvious now.

Clinton does it over and over: runs to black people when he gets into a jam. Many observers have remarked on this, as I did, in these pages, back in the Time of Monica. The civil rights veteran Roger Wilkins put it this way to me: "Clinton is a very shrewd character. He knows that his rapport with black people is terrific. He sees how black people react to him. And he knows that if he goes to see black people, he's going to get a warm bath." Moreover, Clinton has "a habit of using black people as props." And "he plays black people in a very sophisticated and cynical way: He uses black people to talk to white people."

Does he ever. The old hustler hasn't lost a step. His race card is always at the ready. And it's particularly important when the military card isn't available.

Clinton has had a rocky life in New York since he left office, in a shower of self-love. Many of his erstwhile friends and apologists have turned on him, or at least turned cold to him. His pardons stink like garbage. He and his wife took gifts they shouldn't have. And then there was the flap over his post-presidential offices.

He first had his eye on one of the city's fanciest buildings: Carnegie Hall Tower, on West 57th Street. And not just anywhere in the Tower -- on the 56th floor, with "panoramic views of Central Park," as every journalist noted. Clinton pal Barry Diller, the media magnate, was a couple of floors down; another Clinton pal, editrix and buzz-mistress Tina Brown, had recently vacated the 56th. The Man from Hope would live the New York life. And could any other city accommodate a being of such appetites and stature? Said Ms. Brown to the New York Observer, "They [the Clintons -- we're counting Hillary here, too] are natural New Yorkers. Washington is just too small for them."

The ex-president, despite his PR woes, has enjoyed a few high moments. He and another swinging bachelor, ex-senator Bob Kerrey, dined at Babbo, in Greenwich Village. Babbo is not the humblest place in town (despite the humble, Italian-peasant name); it is one of the "hottest," or "buzziest," as Tina might say. Clinton and Kerrey are not exactly old pals, either; in fact, they are old foes. They had a semi-bitter battle in the 1992 primaries, and Kerrey has described Clinton as "an unusually good liar." But they are now seen as something of a Damon-Affleck pair in New York. Kerrey is around -- he was no more going back to Nebraska than Clinton was to Arkansas -- as president of the New School for Social Research (which is so old now, it should perhaps ditch the "New").

Clinton has absorbed a little culture, too. On his second day in town, he showed up at the Metropolitan Opera, to hear Luciano Pavarotti in Aida. His sidekick and money-man, Terry McAuliffe, was with him. When the lights came up after Act I, the audience hailed Clinton, shouting "Bravo!" (Who says he's at home only in Harlem? But we're getting to that.) Afterward, he went backstage to grin and have pictures with Pavarotti -- a kindred spirit, in certain ways.

He has had time for some golf, too, but not in New York, where winter hangs on: in Florida, at a Miami-area country club notorious for its . . . lack of diversity, to use the Clinton idiom. The club -- Indian Creek (there are no Indians there) -- has been characterized in the press as "all-white" or "anti-black," but this misses the mark: What it mainly is is anti-Jewish. There are a few token Semites there, like the investor Carl Icahn, but mainly it holds the line. Certain gentile members have quit the club in disgust (not at the presence of even a few tokens, but at the discrimination). The local mayor warned Clinton, who had played there once before, of Indian Creek's smelly stance. So, why would the ex-president risk offending two of his vital constituencies, Jews and blacks? He is a complicated man, Clinton: Harlem, the Met, Indian Creek. A coalition politician, for sure.

Back at home, Clinton was under fire for his Carnegie Hall Tower dalliance. And Pardongate. And Giftgate. The tabloids were having a field day with him, their newest "bold-face name" (a name that, on the gossip pages, is printed in bold, so that readers can easily spot it). He shared the front pages with Sean "Puffy" Combs, the gangster and rapper on trial for shooting up a nightclub. There are disturbing similarities between Clinton and "Puff Daddy": two men clearly guilty, but unbowed; rooted for by millions of New Yorkers -- not all of them black -- who regard them as victims; and a law, and a morality, unto themselves. "The Rev." Al Sharpton defends them both, and in the same language.