High on the 34th floor of the Grand Hyatt, deep within the force field of Secret Service men and federal agents in riot gear, they stood in a loose group around the woman who hours before had been elected New York’s junior Senator. Hillary Clinton stood staring at an open copy of a hot-off-the-presses New York Post that bore front-and-back “Election Extra” news covers. “CAPITOL HILL” blared one of the headlines above what is probably the most tasteful picture of Mrs. Clinton that Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid has ever run.
Around her stood VH1 chief John Sykes, Talk magazine editor in chief Tina Brown, her writer-editor husband Harold Evans, actress Uma Thurman, mook thespian Joe Pantoliano, writers Lucinda Franks and Stanley Crouch, Democratic operative Patricia Duff, monologist Anna Deavere Smith, opera singer Jessye Norman and Ben Affleck, who was getting the googly eye from Chelsea Clinton as they stood on the perimeter of the crowd.
Much of the crowd of approximately 50, including a gaggle of journalists chosen to duly record the event, had originally been at Elaine’s once more ground zero for the city’s power elite, the site of an election night party hosted by Ms. Brown, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films and Bloomberg News owner Michael Bloomberg where Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were supposed to make a triumphant entrance before a packed crowd that had also included actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver and director Sydney Pollack. But around 1 a.m., with the election at a stalemate, Mr. Weinstein got a call from Clinton campaign headquarters telling him he could bring a handpicked group over to meet the Clintons.
After traveling up in a freight elevator and allowing Secret Service agents to run portable metal detectors over their persons, much of the chosen few now gathered around Mrs. Clinton and the open Post, while someone read what sounded like kind words about the Senator-elect and the campaign she had run. The moment felt like one of those opening-night parties for a big-budget Broadway musical, when someone stands on a chair with the next day’s New York Times and reads from the review. Mrs. Clinton was certainly reacting as if she had gotten a rave, with one of those pop-eyed looks of astonishment that usually accompany stories about her in the Post.
“Now Rupert’s got to like you,” said Mr. Sykes to Mrs. Clinton.
She had won, and there in the suite at the Grand Hyatt, you could already feel the world changing. Her enemies were equivocating and her sycophants were drawing closer.
And though the news anchors and the cable channels maintained there that we still did not know who would next lead our country, we knew. Standing in that room felt like leaning into a gale-force wind of irrevocable change. Our world, our city felt like it was turning upside down. That same issue of the Post carried additional clues. Harrison Ford, the human-yet-invincible Indiana Jones, the man who played an ass-kicking President of the United States, was out on his ass, separated from his wife of 17 years. And adorning the paper’s regular cover was a beaming Jerry Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica Sklar. The comedian whose show had defined 90’s self-absorption had become the father of a baby girl.
The crowd was still staring at the newspaper when Bill Clinton walked into the room and, after shaking a few hands, stood proudly next to his wife on the pale green sisal carpet. His appearance had a catalytic effect. Mr. Weinstein jostled for position, and Ms. Brown became moon-eyed. Save for the sounds of a television spitting out election results in the corner, the room grew silent. Mr. Clinton absorbed the sound energy and converted it to heat. As distracted and frustrated as he clearly was, he did not seem diminished by his knowledge of the night’s events, or the knowledge that, in two months, his roller-coaster ride of a lifetime would be over. Then again, he had lived through worse.
He gave the crowd a once-over, then seemed to adjust his focus accordingly. It was after 2 a.m. and he seemed to sense that he wouldn’t have to do much. The group craned their necks and waited for him to speak. They wanted news, or gossip, or anything that they could say came straight from the man at the top, and Mr. Clinton began to name the states in which Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was hobbling Al Gore.
“I want to kill him,” said Mr. Evans.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Mrs. Clinton replied, wearing a Grinch-like smile.
“That’s off the record!” cried a group of people that included Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Evans.
The sound of everyone laughing drowned out the television. It was an exhalation that signaled both an end and a beginning.
It would be weeks before George W. Bush officially became the President-elect. But long before that, before the rooms full of American flags and the chads and that omnipresent video-loop picture of that sad-eyed guy eyeing a paper ballot, before David Boies and Sandra Day O’Connor, we felt it. We had seen it on our televisions that very night, the maps of the United States divided into red and blue, a bloodless civil war of colors. Maybe deep in our guts we had known it as early as October, after we had screamed and yelled and cheered as our home teams had slugged it out in a Subway Series that no one outside of the city had watched. Some of us had sensed it even before, when our tough-as-nails Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, announced that he was withdrawing from the Senate race because he was suffering from a cancer that attacked the very part of his person that symbolized in this town strength and vitality.
Our moment in the sun our moment as the sun was mottling. Was it truly endangered, or just a passing warning chill, a solar eclipse? Mr. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani may have agreed upon little especially when it came to a certain Senator-elect but they both loved this town, and they each had done their part to make it the nexus of wealth and power and glamour. Mr. Giuliani rebuilt this metropolis into a shiny model city for the new millennium. We fought him every inch of the way, but we yielded. And Mr. Clinton did something that was just as important. His great strength as the leader of the free world was that he appealed to both the superprivileged the men like Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Sykes and the disenfranchised whether the citizens of Bedford-Stuyvesant or Youngstown, Ohio. Mr. Clinton knew how to entrance both the reds and the blues, and so when New York became his happy fund-raising trough, when New York proved its potential as a viable exit strategy for him and his wife, New York, more than Washington, became the capital of this country.
But now that is about to end. George W. Bush may have been educated at one of the two cradles of Northeastern culture, but since then he has delighted in turning his back on it. Certainly Mr. Bush has a feel for power and wealth, but for a different kind of power and wealth than New Yorkers understand and appreciate. Like the Y chromosome that determines human sex, the New York brand of wealth and power is steeped in culture, wrapped in ideology and, for the most part, coated with a kind of public empathy. Mr. Bush appeals to people who are sick to death of the Clintons and what they perceive as their bogus integration of wealth and ambition with a phonily empathic world view.
So don’t expect to see Mr. Bush’s motorcade clogging up the traffic or Secret Service agents sweeping the Waldorf Astoria anytime soon except for the Alfred E. Smith Dinner. The Presidential suite there will no doubt be given over to the wealthy who want to say that they slept in the same suite that Bill Clinton once occupied. President Bush will avoid this town and, in doing so, shield his daughters from the media that wants to make them celebrities and characters in a Saturday Night Live skit. For the next four years, Austin, Texas, will be the capital of the reds, and New York will be seat of the blues.
Even before Mr. Bush has been sworn in, American culture seems to be reflecting this change. In The Family Man, a film directed by a former New York kid named Brett Ratner, Nicolas Cage plays a single, successful, hard-driving arbitrageur who lives on the Upper East Side, and is given the opportunity to see what life would be like if he were married with two children and made a meager living selling tires on the other side of the Hudson River. Even in his warm, homey dream state, Mr. Cage who has entered this what-if world with his financial acumen intact wants to move his family to the city and return to his high-powered life, but the movie’s message at least in the dream state is clear: It is not possible to be a Family Man and live here.
In a matter of weeks, we will be a city in exile. But not just any city. Come January, when Mrs. Clinton begins her official duties as senator and Mr. Clinton begins life here as a private citizen, New York will become the Blue Capital in exile, the place where the architects of the last eight years come to wait for their next opportunities. And in the wee hours of Nov. 8, you didn’t need to put a harlequin’s hat on Mr. Evans’ head or a lute in Mr. Weinstein’s hands to see that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton will not be lacking for a court to smooth their entry into the city.
There was a moment, there, in the Grand Hyatt, after the President had praised his wife, when Mrs. Clinton seemed to be thinking, or maybe joking, about the job ahead. “We have to figure out what we do now.”
Mr. Clinton heard his wife’s remark and, like a New Yorker, gave it a nice cultural spin. “You sound like Robert Redford in The Candidate,” he said.
But clearly both of the Clintons have long known what they are going to do next. Their trajectory Little Rock to Washington to New York has been as well-thought-out as an Apollo moon mission. They land in New York with plenty to offer. They have complex, riveting tragicomic stories to tell, contacts to work and power to wield. Their court will grow and the city will give them something in return, something that the Clintons have never had before: wealth and a bullet-proof cachet. Mrs. Clinton’s $8 million book deal with Simon & Schuster is but the beginning.
And what of Mr. Clinton? As Mr. Crouch was heard to say in the Grand Hyatt suite: “Not everyone can be Bill Clinton.” And Bill Clinton in New York is almost as meaty a subject as Mr. Bush in the White House. If there is anyone built to plug into the sexy, supercharged current of this city, it is Mr. Clinton. And so it was jazzing to watch him, there near the television at the Grand Hyatt, talking politics with Ms. Thurman. Ms. Thurman was looking fine that night she is one of those celebrities who is more beautiful in person than she is on the screen and though she had been to the Talk/Miramax election party with her actor husband, Ethan Hawke, he had not followed her over to the hotel. So, now there was Ms. Thurman getting the full presidential focus, as well as the stares of a bunch of curious onlookers, especially after she told Mr. Clinton that the first televised debate between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush had “made me miss you.” Returning Mr. Clinton’s stare, she asked a question that sounded like, “What are you going to do?” a question that no doubt Ms. Thurman meant in relation to the deadlock between the reds and blues that was shaping up on the TV screen.
Mr. Clinton paused for a minute, and then a small smile appeared on his face. “You mean,” he said, “with the rest of my life?”
May we suggest, for starters, Elaine’s.