Hours before that surreal moment when President Clinton appeared before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 27 to deliver his State of the Union Message, Representative Eliot Engel of the Bronx was trying to stake out a seat by the aisle. The security dogs had just finished applying their well-trained noses to the chamber of the House of Representatives, and now Mr. Engel, a five-term Democrat, was sniffing out a spot that would put him within reach of the President’s hand. If Mr. Engel’s luck held, a national television audience (and the folks back home in the Bronx) would catch a glimpse of him shaking hands and exchanging a few words with an embattled and scarred President.
It did not occur to Mr. Engel to do anything else, even at a moment when some of Mr. Clinton’s former allies and friends seem ready to abandon him to the snapping jaws of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Mr. Engel may not be a quintessential member of the glamorous New York chapter of the Friends of Bill-indeed, his manner is so earnest and utterly uncharismatic that The Wall Street Journal poked fun at him in a page 1 profile in 1996-but his loyalty to the President would do any politically connected West Side lawyer proud. “Eliot’s attitude is that the President is dong a great job, and that there should be a presumption of innocence here,” said his chief of staff, Arnold Linhardt.
That attitude appears to be shared by a great many New York Democrats, a group that has performed yeoman work for the President as a source for funds and ideas. The Beltway may be home to jackals and plotters, ready to turn on a wounded politician, but New York’s Democrats seem determined to stick with the man who gave them attention and influence not seen in decades, although Eliot Spitzer, a candidate for State Attorney General and a Clinton supporter, noted that he found “a sense of dismay, shock and revulsion” among Democratic campaign contributors.
Nevertheless, if Mr. Clinton has a power base to fall back on as he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, battle for public support, clearly it is contained in the law offices, corporate suites, plush apartments and well-appointed offices of New York’s Democratic power elite.
Mr. Clinton is intimately familiar with these precincts. As recently as Jan. 8, the President was raising money from prominent New York supporters. He was the guest of honor at a luncheon hosted by Jane Rosenthal, president of TriBeCa Productions, and her husband, Craig Hatkoff, in their $4 million apartment in the Dakota. Later that day, he presided over a dinner in the Park Avenue apartment of Alan and Susan Patricof. Having gotten money from these high-power New Yorkers, Mr. Clinton very likely will turn to them in search of political capital.
Mr. Clinton’s supporters say there has been no coordinated effort to spring the city’s F.O.B.’s into action. “Most people are just keeping their mouths shut and watching [developments],” said Mel Weiss, a prominent lawyer who has given money to Mr. Clinton. “A lot of people consider it to be very sad.” Victor Kovner, a former city corporation counsel and part of the city’s powerful, Clinton-aligned legal community, said he was “sick at heart” over the allegations, although he said he didn’t believe they were true. And Bert Pogrebin, another lawyer and certified F.O.B., said that “people are very anguished and upset and have a feeling of helplessness.”
That sense of helplessness was hardly what New York Democrats envisioned when Mr. Clinton was elected in 1992. Back then, they saw themselves as part of the vanguard of a new Democratic administration that would give them access to power and privilege for the first time in a generation. Unlike the most recent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, Mr. Clinton was well known to the party’s movers and shakers in Manhattan, having networked his way through the Democratic establishment. And, once installed in the Oval Office, he summoned New Yorkers such as Harold Ickes, Robert Rubin, Sara Kovner, Bernard Nussbaum, Susan Thomases, Raymond Kelly, Louis Freeh, Andrew Cuomo and others to Washington. Lawyers, Wall Streeters, power brokers and even small-time Democratic pols got a taste of power denied them during the Republican Party’s 25 years of near-monopoly of the White House. Some of those New Yorkers, such as Mr. Kelly, who heads the Secret Service, Mr. Rubin, the Treasury Secretary, Mr. Freeh, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Mr. Cuomo, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, still are there. Others, such as Mr. Nussbaum and Ms. Thomases, left under less than happy circumstances.
Despite several public failures, it has been something of a New York moment in Washington, perhaps the most conspicuous since the New Deal. And for that reason, and despite the misgivings of some who confess privately that they believe Mr. Clinton has behaved improperly, New York may provide Mr. Clinton with the influence, finances and political base upon which to defend his Presidency. Norm Stein, a New York lawyer and Arkansas transplant who has known Mr. Clinton for years, said, “In New York, no matter what, I think you’ll see supporters speaking out on behalf of the President. I have no doubt about that.”
Indeed, at least one voice-and a powerful one-already has spoken out forcefully. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the man who might have beaten Mr. Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primaries had he chosen to run, is outraged that so many Democrats beyond the Hudson River seem reluctant to defend the President. “I’m surprised and unhappy that so many of his supporters have damned him with faint defense,” Mr. Cuomo told The Observer . Referring to the distance that Clinton aide-turned-commentator George Stephanopoulos has sought to put between himself and the President, Mr. Cuomo said: “Stephanopoulos has surprised me. He’s kind of refused to say he believes the President. That’s regrettable, I think.”
If some New York Democrats have been less than stalwart in their defense of Mr. Clinton, that’s because a few suspect, or perhaps the verb is fear, that Monica Lewinsky’s story of Oval Office encounters is true. One well-connected Democratic fund-raiser said she thinks the President may be lying, which would mean that “we all worked so hard to elect this guy, and then he ruins it all because he can’t keep his zipper closed.”
And others know that the President himself raised the stakes when, on Jan. 26, he adamantly denied having “sexual relations” with Ms. Lewinsky. Floyd Abrams, the prominent First Amendment lawyer, noted that while the President said “in very clear language” that he hadn’t had sexual relations with the former intern, “if they can show that he did, he’s in very bad trouble, and he should be, not because he has sex with her, but because at some point, the public takes stock of its leaders and will not permit a terrible lie, even if they permit white lies.”
Robert Rifkind, a partner at the Cravath, Swaine & Moore law firm, said: “I think what everyone has felt is if this were true, then it would be a real tragedy. None of us finds it easy to believe that such a smart guy would behave so stupidly.” Mr. Rifkind, who said there is a “substantial measure of doubt” that the charges will be substantiated, is a Clinton contributor.
Of course, Democrats have other reasons for wishing the scandal would go away. The party will be fielding candidates to challenge Senator Alfonse D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki and State Attorney General Dennis Vacco later this year. Memories of the shellacking Republicans absorbed in the post-Watergate election of 1974 haven’t dimmed. “If the worst happens to Clinton,” said one party insider, “that’s what we have to look forward to.”
Already, there are signs that some Democrats are uneasy, to say the least, with their putative party leader. One of the first Democrats to criticize Mr. Clinton was Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who talked vaguely about the prospect of impeachment. Her remarks, sources told The Observer , enraged Mrs. Clinton and very likely did her no good within the circle of supporters she and Mr. Clinton share among New York’s Democratic powerhouses.
One of Ms. Ferraro’s prospective primary opponents, Representative Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, had been running a campaign advertisement that includes him with Mr. Clinton. The ads are no longer on the air, although campaign spokesman Hank Morris said the timing was coincidental.
Consultant Hank Sheinkopf is among those putting a brave face on the proceedings in Washington, insisting that New Yorkers “are not subject to populist arguments when you couple morals and politics.” Still, the enormous task of dislodging incumbents clearly has gotten that much harder recently. If Mr. Clinton becomes a political liability, the eventual Democratic nominees for Senate, Governor and Attorney General will spend the fall putting distance between the White House and their campaigns. And Mr. Clinton’s prodigious fund-raising abilities will be for naught.
Next fall’s elections are, however, a lifetime away. For the moment, New York’s Democrats have their eyes, and hopes, fixed on today’s headlines. It has been a long time since they had a friend in the White House. Few want to believe that friend will be leaving any time soon.