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 Gift-gate. 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.
The Carnegie digs were proving a greater problem than Clinton must have anticipated. They would cost the government just under $ 1 million a year, and many people -- some important -- were choking. Clinton, in an early attempt at damage control, held a sidewalk news conference, at which he assured, "I'm not going to let the taxpayers get gigged on this." But he went on to explain to the provincials of the land what life was all about in the big city: "I mean, it's New York! I also pay higher taxes in New York, and I'm glad to be here." Here we have the phenomenon of the insta-New Yorker. I see it all the time: A guy arrives on a Tuesday, and by Friday he's bitching about the corn-fed tourists, and about his Aunt Martha from Dayton, who "just doesn't get the prices here."
In Congress, Rep. Ernest Istook, of the very un-New York state of Oklahoma, and chairman of the relevant subcommittee, was raising a fuss about Clinton's prospective suite in the sky. He wanted Clinton to accept, say, the ninth floor, which would cost about two-thirds less. You rubes in Greater America probably wouldn't understand this, but floor -- height, altitude -- is extremely important in Manhattan. Said "a source close to Clinton" to the New York Post, "Istook is just trying to make him take a lower floor to demean him." And the ninth floor, aside from the fact that it was practically at worm-level, was just too close to the Russian Tea Room for comfort -- security and all.
It was looking bad for Clinton: his greed, his fanciness. His liberal base had always been lenient -- even celebratory -- about the sex, but the money angle was more discomfiting. Cattle futures, Oriental cash, spirited-out Executive Mansion luxury goods, funds-for-pardons, the 56th floor -- all hard to swallow. Clinton, particularly without his Oval Office-commanded attack and spin machine, was in a pinch.
And then he played it -- his card.
Said Clinton -- and only he would be brazen enough to pretend this is true -- "I asked myself, 'If I could go any place in New York to have an office, where would I go?' Immediately I thought of . . . " -- of course, Harlem. Immediately. Carnegie Hall Tower? Where's that? The main mover behind the stunt seems to have been Charlie Rangel, Harlem's congressman-for-life. Rangel apparently serves as a kind of Clinton-family counselor: He more or less started the Hillary-for-Senate (from New York) movement, and now he has rescued Bill.
Actually, a move to Harlem is not an original ploy -- and Rangel is no stranger to the theater associated with it. In 1960, Fidel Castro famously decamped from a plush Midtown hotel to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, to show solidarity with the people there. Whenever he returns to New York, for a U.N. gathering, he goes back to Harlem, where he is mobbed by cheering, adulatory throngs -- and bear-hugged and escorted by Charlie Rangel. In 1995, at a Baptist church, they all screamed, "Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!" and "Viva Cuba!" Said Castro there, "As a revolutionary, I knew I would be welcome in this neighborhood." He used the occasion to blast Republican affirmative-action policy.
Clinton, too, was mobbed and adulated in Harlem -- "treated like a rock star," we all would say. He had been "snubbed" by the elites downtown, and now he was "going home," where he "belonged." In one of those amazing flights of autobiography -- incredible, but not precisely checkable -- Clinton claimed that he used to enjoy walking through Harlem in the 1960s. "People would come up to me and ask me what I was doing here, and I said, 'I don't know, I just like it.' It felt like home." The comment of one in the Harlem throng, to the Post, was typical: "He grew up in a single-parent family. He struggled. Why don't he come on home?"
Clinton soaked up the love around 125th Street -- sucked it in like a sick man his medicine. He seemed to feel validated by it, redeemed, as he always does. The mindset contains the following: Black people are the moral arbiters of this country, its very conscience. They like me, and more than like me. Compared with that, every other question is disgustingly small. Sit on it.
As untiring Clinton apologist -- and Clinton likeness -- Geraldo Rivera said, "Can those bitter and frustrated political foes lay a glove on the President of 125th Street?" To bask in the love of black people is, in one sense, to be untouchable. During his shining hour in Harlem, Clinton declared, "This is what my presidency was about." Yes, in a way.
Clinton may not move in -- there are lease problems with the designated building. And even if he does, he shouldn't be expected to spend much time there -- he'll find a way to get back downtown. The comedian and social critic Chris Rock expressed such a fear when he said in an interview, "Bill, you better really be there. Don't have a side office downtown where you do your real business, do your real entertaining" (as Al Sharpton does, incidentally -- his downtown domain is in the Empire State Building). Clinton could easily arrange a life of (a) Babbo, (b) golf in Westchester County, (c) travel, and (d) an appearance in the 'hood every now and then, for lunch, autographs, and love/validation.
Our 42nd president is a beaut, all right. And you can count on him. You really can.
Jay Nordlinger is managing editor of National Review.