Get Ready, Mr. President, for Chappaqua Alienation

I don’t have much sympathy for Bill Clinton, but after

spending two days in Chappaqua my heart goes out to him. He’s getting socked

away down a cul-de-sac surrounded by McMansions. If his last house was done

over, with provincial nuttiness, by Kaki Hockersmith, his new house has been

done with bourgeois opulence, that screams “rich doctor.” Central air, custom

moldings, giant addition and swimming pool. Not a lot of imagination.

Dentition, one real estate agent told me, describing the dental form of the

moldings. Another agent said the kitchen is new and perfect, and the master

bedroom suite is two stories. But if Bill gets bored in that bedroom he can’t

go out the back door, because that’s the woods. It’s a cul-de-sac with a

perfect yellow gravel driveway and specimen plantings, as they say in

Chappaqua, whatever specimen plantings are. And no blacks. This is probably the

first place Bill Clinton will live without black people around.

If he did manage to escape, there’s nothing for him to do.

This is not old-line suburbia, not Cheever’s Ossining or Key Party, Conn.

Chappaqua is a family community in the woods. Everyone there tells you that.

People move there for the schools, and there’s a stern family feeling about the

place. Sheltered meritocracy gone nuts. I bumped into a 9-year-old in the

little village, wearing a bicycle helmet and riding a bike with training

wheels. Shades of my own bike-fearing Jewish childhood. The real estate agents

hand out sheets listing where all the ’99 high school graduates are going to

college.

“Everything here is for the kids, there’s nothing for

adults,” one longtime resident told me. There’s no action. Chappaqua is not

even a village, it’s a hamlet. It shuts down at 9 o’clock at night. To make as

much money as you have to, to live in Chappaqua, you have to be a mensch in the

substantial sense of the word. The men are solid-citizen types, and the women

drive S.U.V.’s, and many of them have put aside good careers to raise their

children. It has that conservative feeling, even though it is Democratic. A man

I ran into at the temple offered that he thinks Bill Clinton’s “conduct” was “a

great pity-despicable.” The Baptist minister in town said the thing with the

little girl last year took the wind out of his sails.

I felt even more keenly for Bill when I saw where the

Clintons almost ended up, the house in Edgemont, bordering Scarsdale, that was

the inside favorite to be their San Clemente: 74 Ardsley Road. This is a

magnificent estate. The driveway climbs dramatically through a deep cut in a

wall of rock to get to a grand old colonial clapboard house on more than three

acres. On this fortress of a hill, you are off by yourself, yet situated in one

of the ritziest suburbs in America-Scarsdale!-with a big, quiet yard and little

sight of your neighbors. Best of all, 74 Ardsley is less than a mile from

Central Avenue, and Central Avenue is alive. There are Clintonesque places to

go to Central Avenue, McDonald’s and Tower Records, Gap and the Clearview

cineplex. And the city of Yonkers, all within a mile or two of 74 Ardsley.

There are black people on Central Avenue, and again I wonder, what will Bill

Clinton do without blacks-in a place where you never hear a car go by playing

rap music too loud? “People here are picky,” the man who cut my hair in

Chappaqua told me. Snooty.

Real estate agents in Scarsdale say that the Clintons loved

the house on 74 Ardsley, but the Secret Service hated the road. Still, I can

understand why Hillary rejected 74 Ardsley. To love this house requires a

little imagination and time and lack of control, some negative capability. The

wiring looks old, the fixtures out of date. It needs a paint job. There’s no

swimming pool. When you’re on the bottom in this master bedroom you don’t look

up at the sky, but at a normal ceiling.

The house in Chappaqua has been done. “Exquisitely restored

… All the amenities of today,” according to the real estate agency Houlihan

Lawrence, who sold it for $1.7 million. It was once an old manor house, thus

the name of the street, Old House Lane, but its six acres were carved up into a

claustrophobic little subdivision. The doctor who owned it for 18 years,

Jeffrey Weisberg, helped found a string of elite suburban doctors’ offices,

offering the services of doctors affiliated with Beth Israel Medical Center,

called DOCS. He bought the house for $205,000 and put tons of money into it,

doubling it in size. A monstrous 5,200 square feet on one acre. “Exquisitely

restored,” said Houlihan Lawrence, which means sparing no expense. The taste is

obviously conventional. “Fabulous MBR suite.” Do tasteful people make their

master bedrooms into suites?

The Clintons don’t have

taste, don’t have time for taste, something they insist on proving again and

again, with Monica Lewinsky, Bill’s neckties and Hillary’s colorful capes. When

they get something right, and they do, it is assigned taste, conventional

taste. That’s what the Weisberg house looks like-conservative, perfect

bourgeois taste, sitting uncomfortably on its tiny one acre, with tacky

McMansions around it, and the cul-de-sac, and buses of Japanese tourists

already arriving to swing around the bulb end of the cul-de-sac to gawk at the

columned porch.

You wouldn’t have gotten any busloads of Japanese tourists

up through that narrow rock cut in Scarsdale. No MBR suite with double vanity

there either. 

There’s something a little helpless about 15 Old House Lane.

It is exposed socially in a way the Clintons wouldn’t have been in Scarsdale.

Chappaqua is in northern Westchester, right down the road from Bedford and

Mount Kisco and Pound Ridge-fancier, horsier (read,

WASPier) places than Chappaqua. Alan Arkin and Simon Schama are said to live in

or just outside Chappaqua, but Glenn Close and Tina Brown live in Bedford. Do

you see the tribal divide? There is a sense that, especially on her subdivided

splinter of land, with the striving doctor’s decor, Hillary has set herself up

to be looked down upon. To be socially insecure. Does she like that spot? Bill

grew up not caring about all that. But she couldn’t help having that

experience, daughter of a small-business man in the Republican suburbs

northwest of Chicago. Maybe she is trying to have that feeling again. Security

in insecurity.

A friend I have in

Chappaqua had heard that Hillary, who is said to have driven this decision,

liked Chappaqua because it is a place you can put down roots. “This place has

no roots,” my friend said. “Everyone comes for the school system.” Everyone

here is actually like Hillary, a carpetbagging meritocrat. Many were drawn by

IBM in Armonk, the rest get the express train to the city, 50 minutes. These

are the people who have won big in school and career and are willing to spend

huge amounts in taxes to have the best public schools in the country, the best

computer labs and so forth, so that their children will do great in the next

meritocratic round. How public are those schools, anyway? You have to be loaded

to the gills to live in Chappaqua-the Clintons’ tax bill is $26,000 a year, and

people say that’s low; it reflects a $345,000 assessment of a house that is

worth four times that. It takes a village-no, it takes taxes. The Clintons

could end up spending $100,000 a year in property taxes for schools they won’t

use. 

In horsier Republican

places they don’t spend so much on taxes, and the kids go off to boarding

school. But Chappaqua has a sheltered ethnic flavor; Chappaqua families want to

keep the kids around. The mothers drop their children off at school in

S.U.V.’s- “You’re a geek if you ride the bus to school,” one mother, whose son

rides the bus, told me-and the hamlet feels like an enclave. Chappaqua has

Jews. When Jews were browbeaten out of other leafy places in northern

Westchester, they found a beachhead in Quaker Chappaqua. Temple Beth-El has

been around for 50 years and is booming; the Baptist church in town is

struggling.

“When I started in the business here more than 20 years ago,

I talked to another fellow in real estate who said, ‘You may as well change

your name to Youngstein, all the Jews are taking over,'” said Leonard Young, a

realtor who is, of course, Jewish. And the Jews helped turn Chappaqua from

Republican to Democratic. There are two seats up on the town board this fall;

Democrats are running and are unopposed.

They tell a story in

Chappaqua about the head of the school district speaking about how diverse

people’s backgrounds are. The kids come from all over, and there are many

Asians. There is something terribly smug about this, the smugness of the

meritocracy. Because you don’t see black or Hispanic faces, and there is no

economic diversity. Everyone in Chappaqua is wealthy. It turns out the

meritocracy is more exclusive in its way than the old order; they don’t want

any blue-collar people around-tax them out of the way. “There are minorities in

Mount Kisco [five miles away],” one real estate agent told me, darkly. And a

driver hosing down a limo at the train station said, “Ninety-nine percent of

the people who work here, they live somewhere else. Maybe some of the shop

owners live here.” The servant class can’t afford $26,000 in taxes. They show

up on the train from the inner suburbs, Hawthorne, White Plains.

The meritocrats feel fine about this level of exclusion

because, in the

meritocracy, everyone got an equal chance, right? At least the old aristocrats

didn’t pretend it was equal at the starting line. In any case, there is no

blue-collar section in Chappaqua, as there is in so many of the great

Westchester suburbs-Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Hastings-on-Hudson. Only one out of

319 Chappaqua fourth-graders polled in a recent state survey was eligible for a

free lunch. In It Takes a Village ,

Hillary tells a moving story about going to school for a few weeks each fall

with the children of migrant farm workers. That sort of mixing won’t happen in

Chappaqua. You don’t even see the middle class here.

I have to think that the unpretentious small-D democrat in

Bill will hate his cul-de-sac. “It’s a pretentious, shallow community,” said a

man who served me at one of the local restaurants. “I don’t live here, but I

hear the mothers talking in the morning. It’s keeping up with the Joneses on a

very pricy level, all about who bought what car and who is going to what

school.” A resident said, “It’s war among the four-by-fours.”

Are you responsible for your choice in community?

Politically responsible? We used to think so. As lefties in the 70’s and 80’s,

we chose our neighborhoods for their economic and racial diversity. Hillary’s

new community may be politically Democratic, but economic justice is now

completely off the table for new Democrats. There is more economic diversity in

Rudy Giuliani’s neighborhood, even in Governor Pataki’s Garrison, where there’s

an old Irish bar, and the taxes haven’t forced out the last of the middle

class. The Times called Chappaqua

upper middle class. That is a meritocratic euphemism. This is the 99th

percentile.

The big secret reason Hillary wanted to move to Chappaqua, leaving

aside the Jewish palace bedroom, is the airport. If she lived in Scarsdale, it

would be 45 minutes to LaGuardia, at least a half hour to Westchester County

Airport, in White Plains. In Chappaqua it is just 10 minutes to Westchester

County airport. And thence to Buffalo.

Still, it is hard to imagine the ex-president stuck away in

the leafy cul-de-sac. A haunted O.J.-ish figure, as the truth finally comes out

about Waco and the threats to women. Surrounded by substantial, judgmental

families and an angry wife. At least in Scarsdale he could be having a little

fun. Fun at the driving range, where he could still be Bubba. Fun at the high

school track, where he could stop jogging to talk to the chicks playing

soccer-Frisbee or football-Frisbee, whatever that game is where chicks are

included, and lunge for Frisbees. Maybe meet one of the princesses who grew up

in those big, arrogant stone houses set so arrogantly on their plots,

self-assured beautiful girls who would make his heart flood out in his chest with

aspiration. There are all-night restaurants on Central Avenue, there’s

honky-tonk. There are hotels just down the road. Or motels. There’s action.

No action in Chappaqua. No hotels motels notels. Just kids

with training wheels and helmets. And a fabulous two-story MBR suite. With

dentition.