For years now, we’ve been watching Bill Clinton’s approach into New York–fund-raisers and friends, birthday cakes at Radio City and nights at the Waldorf. He was like a lumbering Airbus circling the air lanes above Kennedy Airport.
Well, he’s finally touched down.
And, in a weird act of synchronicity, he’s preparing to settle into the very space from which his buddy, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, and editor Tina Brown spawned their almost-monthly magazine, Talk , and from where, on the 56th floor of Carnegie Hall Towers at 152 West 57th Street, Ms. Brown hatched an almost-memorable profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton in Talk No. 1.
In those offices–for which the taxpayers may pay as much as $750,000 a year–the southern windows provide views of passing blimps and heartbreaking sunsets glinting off the Empire State Building; the western windows provide the Hudson River to the Meadowlands; to the majestic north, the former President will see Central Park itself in perfect green miniature, down to the skaters at Wollman Rink. The eastern windows peer down 57th Street, where power brokers live and work and eat.
And he will be among them.
Julian Niccolini, managing co-partner of the Four Seasons Restaurant, already has a table waiting for Mr. Clinton. And like a good many New Yorkers, he’s expecting to see him sometime soon.
Beginning at noon on Jan. 20, 54-year-old Bill Clinton will be a former President and a New Yorker, a combination not seen since Richard Nixon spent some time on the Upper East Side and Herbert Hoover lived out his chilly exile in an apartment in the Waldorf Astoria. Needless to say, though Mr. Clinton was the first elected President ever impeached and may yet find himself hauled before a court of law, he will be made at home in New York in a way that Nixon (who was famously rejected by a co-op board here) and Hoover never were. New York Democrats were among the original F.O.B.’s, and even if a few (like Peter Edelman, who resigned his post at the Department of Health and Human Services to protest Mr. Clinton’s assent to welfare reform) have fallen by the wayside, there’s no shortage of power machers , star-kissers, fame worshippers and natural-born shillers eager to supply Mr. Clinton with invitations to dinner parties, premieres and golf outings.
For Bill Clinton is no worn-out ex-President leaving office with sagging (or hunched) shoulders, returning to places with names like Independence or Gettysburg or Plains. He is the youngest ex-President since Theodore Roosevelt, and he clearly is not the sort who would, Truman-like, settle for a retirement spent in, say, a town called Hope.
Though Mr. Clinton reportedly will spend his first night as a former President in suburban Chappaqua, where he and the junior Senator share a house, he is expected to be an everyday presence in Manhattan, with his office in Carnegie Hall Tower serving as the headquarters for a sort of government in exile. (Senator Clinton will have her Manhattan offices on Third Avenue.)
Even if his wife hadn’t seized the chance to become a New York Senator, Mr. Clinton was destined to settle here. “They are natural New Yorkers,” said Ms. Brown, whose gushing Talk of the Town item about Mr. Clinton in the Feb. 16, 1998, issue of The New Yorker presaged the embrace of Manhattan’s cultural elite. “I think it’s definitely the place for them.” Washington, she insisted, “is just too small a place for them.”
Of course, Washington probably wouldn’t have them. The Clintons never hit it off with the capital’s power elites, as Washington Post writer Sally Quinn rather intemperately reminded them during the impeachment fiasco. Official Washington saw none of the charm Ms. Brown and others found in Mr. Clinton: “Absurdly debonair,” Ms. Brown wrote in her New Yorker piece. “His height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes project a kind of avid inclusiveness.” Instead, Ms. Quinn summarized Official Washington’s view of Mr. Clinton thusly: “They call the capital city their ‘town.’ And their town has been turned upside down. With some exceptions, the Washington Establishment is outraged by the president’s behavior….”
What a difference a few hundred miles makes. Official Washington was outraged. Official New York can’t wait to make Mr. Clinton one of them. People like Mr. Weinstein will see to it that the former First Couple feels welcomed, loved and respected. Of course, Mr. Clinton is exactly the kind of drop-in Manhattan adores (and we know just how much adoration means to him): He radiates intellectual and sexual energy, and he personifies that nexus of power and celebrity that historians may one day find troubling, but we seem to regard as deeply entertaining. It helps, of course, that he seems to like New York–its glamour, its power, its doe-eyed courtiers and its inexhaustible supply of wealthy influence-seekers.
“I can’t wait to have him here,” Mr. Niccolini said of Mr. Clinton. “If he wants a table here, he’s got a table here.” And that table very likely will be one of the booths on the east side of the Grill Room–where Mr. Clinton’s friend and fellow Washington emigré Vernon Jordan often can be found, along with a few other formers, like Ed Koch, Alfonse D’Amato and Henry Kissinger. If one of them–or other regulars like Leonard Lauder, Si Newhouse, Steve Florio, Pete Peterson or Philip Johnson–happens to be in a booth Mr. Niccolini needs for Mr. Clinton, well, they’ll be asked to make a small sacrifice for their country. “I’m sure they’ll say, ‘Absolutely,’” Mr. Niccolini said.
The country-club set on Long Island and in Westchester may prove to be slightly less accommodating when Mr. Clinton and his golfing buddy Mr. Jordan, currently ensconced in the investment house of Lazard Frères, want to sneak in a quick 18 holes. The members at Maidstone, Shinnecock Hills and Hampton Bays on Long Island are devoutly Republican; several country clubs in Westchester already have made it clear that the President would not be welcome. Luckily for him (and perhaps this is not an accident), New York has 13 municipal golf courses, one of the largest such operations on the planet. One of the city-owned courses, Van Cortlandt in the Bronx, is only about 30 minutes by car from midtown, Westchester just beyond.
If Mr. Clinton does, in fact, set up shop on West 57th Street, he will be within walking distance of Gabriel’s, where his friend Mr. Weinstein has his splendid Miramax after-parties; the Brooklyn Diner, where the power-lunch crowd goes when the bites have to be quick; and the Brasserie 8 1/2, which owes its tomato-carpeted interior look to the taste and judgment of Vice President Gore’s Florida attorney, David Boies. (Mr. Boies helped owner Sheldon Solow with the restaurant’s décor.)
And he’ll not be far from the homes of many of his oldest and most fervent supporters–West Side Democrats who consider Mr. Clinton to be the savior of his party. “I want to run into [Mr. Clinton and Senator Clinton] at parties,” said writer and West Side resident Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who has known the Clintons for years. “I want to run into them at rallies. The press will turn up and crowds will turn up and it will be very good for our side.”
Stage actress Tovah Feldshuh, another Upper West Side resident who dabbles in Clintonista politics, could hardly contain her enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton’s imminent omnipresence. “All he needs to do is show up with his saxophone at Michael’s Pub–take that sax to Michael’s and give us one Monday night and he’s in like Flynn,” she said. A more discreet Clinton supporter would have found another way to describe Mr. Clinton’s effect on some New Yorkers. But there’s no denying Mr. Clinton’s seductive appeal among the liberal Democrat elites who populate Manhattan’s finer dinner tables. Ms. Brown said the Clintons would become the “kind of guest du jour to be having.”
Eager as the restaurant managers, hostesses and power groupies are to have New York’s favorite former President in their midst, they will have to bear with the tiresome rituals associated with the ex-Presidency. Since the election of George W. Bush, New York Democrats have taken ironic consolation in the knowledge that their routines will no longer be held hostage to the roadblocks, frozen zones, 30-car motorcades and all the other baggage that accompanied Mr. Clinton’s frequent visits. Mr. Bush figures to visit New York only when he must. But Mr. Clinton will be a daily presence, and he remains entitled to Secret Service protection. While his motorcades may not be as big as they once were, and while the human shield around him will grow smaller, he won’t be strolling into the Four Seasons, or anywhere else, alone.
The exact size of the Secret Service contingent that will accompany Mr. Clinton everywhere is not public information, said Secret Service spokesman Marc Connolly. He added, however, that Mr. Clinton will be entitled to the protection offered “our other protectees.” And that will mean Secret Service security sweeps and small but significant motorcades every time Mr. Clinton moves around town. In a sampling of what will be a daily occurrence in Manhattan, former President Jimmy Carter came to town in early January to promote his memoirs, An Hour Before Daylight . Mr. Carter traveled through midtown in a small motorcade, while an advance team of Secret Service agents fanned out to the Barnes & Noble store in Lincoln Center and other tour locations to prepare the way for the ex-President. “We work hard to minimize inconveniences,” said Mr. Connolly of the Secret Service’s work. “We try to minimize delays.” He noted that it will be “quite easier to move a small number of vehicles” through Manhattan “than it is to move a 30-car or 50-car motorcade.”
No doubt as the Bush Restoration gets settled and New York Democrats look out at a red-shaded world they do not recognize, they will gladly put up with security sweeps in their dining rooms and motorcades parked outside their favorite restaurant (even if it’s McDonald’s). For they still regard Mr. Clinton as the man who broke the Republican Party’s near-monopoly on the White House since the 1960′s (and therefore the man who could hand out big jobs to long-suffering attorneys and policy wonks), and a man who seemed to belong in New York all along. “He’ll have too many friends,” said publicist Bobby Zarem, who considers himself one of them. “Everybody who worked with him … will do anything and everything they can to spend time with him. I don’t know how he’ll weed it out.”
The irony here, of course, is that Mr. Clinton will arrive in New York to accept the laurels of a conquering hero despite, and not because of, his political achievements. Historians already have decided that he was the most conservative Democratic President since Grover Cleveland. He signed legislation repealing a welfare entitlement that had been enshrined in the New Deal. He signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which business wanted and labor sought desperately to block. He adopted the rhetoric of conservative Republicans on small-bore issues like school uniforms. And, ideology aside, he engaged in conduct that so many feminists and liberals would usually describe as sexual harassment.
And yet, New York’s power elites can hardly wait to spot him in the street or be summoned to a dinner with him or be asked to do him a favor.
That’s because, in the end, they think of Bill Clinton as one of them. And that’s what matters, after all.
Follow Terry Golway via RSS.