The helicopters made mechanical thunder in the overcast sky as they descended in pairs to the East Hampton Airport’s tarmac. First came the dual-rotor transports, their olive hulls emblazoned “United States Marines” in gold. Down the ramp of one of the aircraft scrambled what looked like a cadre of Secret Service agents, all brushcuts and skeptical scowls. From the ramp of the other clambered cameramen and reporters from the Washington press pool, bored-looking and more formally dressed than the 40-odd photographers and journalists who had been standing in a roped-off area for more than an hour.
The penned-up, pent-up media workers were not alone as they waited for Bill and Hillary Clinton to make the hop from West Hampton to East Hampton. Also on the tarmac were an ambulance equipped with advanced life-support systems, numerous police cars and six fire trucks. Two men in dark clothes, each with enormous binoculars, leaned against a sport utility vehicle, scouting the horizon. The President’s chopper was landing.
A motorcade pulled up to Marine One , and Mrs. Clinton, then Mr. Clinton, his hair a snowy white in the Hamptons light, offered a few waves, got into a car and sped off for director Steven Spielberg’s home.
Even to a jaded soul, it is an impressive sight to watch so many people focusing all of their vigilance on the well being of two aging baby boomers. To Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, these protective measures must provide a lulling illusion. A sense, perhaps, that the hard shell of security that surrounds them wherever they go can blunt the destructive forces of Washington: information, gossip, even, good God, a 25-year-old girl.
By now, the Clintons have learned that this is not the case, but in their visit to the Hamptons the weekend of Aug. 31, they found some respite. In addition to the Federally mandated blanket of security that followed Mr. Clinton from event to event, he was swaddled in a protective pocket of Hamptons power from the moment he set foot on Long Island’s East End. Housed by Mr. Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, feted by investment banker Bruce Wasserstein and tirelessly steered through the Hamptons shark pool by venture capitalist Alan Patricof, the President and his wife had to have been able to indulge the notion that they were momentarily safe from the prying ways of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the media. (It didn’t hurt that much of the coverage of the Clintons’ visit was limited to pool reporting and that those members of the press were lodged one pain-in-the-ass drive away in Hauppauge, L.I.)
With the press at bay–an irony, given the Hamptons’ reputation as the summer home of the media elite–the Clintons embarked on a weekend that seemed carefully crafted for maximum political and personal benefit.
The centerpiece of the weekend was a $25,000-a-couple dinner for the Clintons at the home of Mr. Wasserstein and his wife, Claude, carefully planned and orchestrated for maximum Clinton comfort. The chef was Daniel Boulud; the meal included roasted Montauk tuna wrapped in cured bacon, gratin of zucchini flower filled with eggplant confit and bittersweet chocolate lemon cake; the President cleaned his plate. The evening had other tonic properties. While certainly a boon to the Democratic National Committee, it could also have been seen as a job fair for the President and the First Lady (that is, if Mr. Clinton hasn’t already accepted that much-rumored job at Mr. Spielberg’s company, Dreamworks SKG.)
Among those populating the five tables of 12 that had been set up for the evening were Wasserstein-Perella president Fred Segal and managing director Jeffrey Rosen; New Line Cinema president Michael Lynne and his wife, Ninah; Goldman Sachs co-chairman Jon Corzine and managing director Thomas Tuft; entertainment mogul Quincy Jones; socialite Courtney Sale Ross; attorney and Livent Inc. chief executive Roy Furman and his wife, Frida; Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter & Company managing director Byron Wien; playwright Wendy Wasserstein; Miramax Pictures co-chairman Harvey Weinstein; fashion designer Vera Wang and her investment banker husband Arthur Becker; and grain magnate Paul Fribourg. Henry Kravis, a founding partner of Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts, and his wife, Marie-Josée, were also scheduled to attend but sent their regrets because of “family reasons,” according to a spokesman for Mr. Wasserstein. (A source involved with the fund-raiser said that Mr. Kravis nonetheless contributed $25,000.) Mr. Kravis did not return calls seeking comment, but his cancellation prompted some speculation that he had pulled out of the dinner because he was not invited to tee off with Mr. Clinton. The leveraged buyout specialist’s name was on a long list of potential golf partners (as was George Soros’) from which the President chose three golfing buddies-for-a-day. And they were: Arthur Becker, his pal, real estate mogul Fred Mack and golf-course architect Rees Jones. Sources familiar with the situation said that Mr. Clinton chose these men largely because of their talent on the links. He wanted to focus on his game rather than discuss the state of the nation.
Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman dismissed reports that there was some tension between the D.N.C. and the Wassersteins over the size of the dinner. One source told The Transom that there was three times as much interest in the fund-raiser than there were seats. “The D.N.C. wanted to control the invites, the size of the dinner and the seating plan,” said the source. “But Bruce was adamant.… He wanted to remain loyal to those he promised that the dinner would be … intimate.” Another source said that Mr. Wasserstein took a very proprietary interest in the guest list. “There were two [entities] vetting the guests,” said the source. “The Secret Service and Bruce Wasserstein.”
Mr. Grossman conceded that there was a lot of demand for the dinner. “Bruce and Claude Wasserstein told us from the very beginning that they wanted to have a lovely intimate dinner and that their dining room could hold a maximum of 60 people. You work with the ground rules that the host sets,” said Mr. Grossman. He added that, in retrospect, “having 60 people had a lovely feel to it … though we clearly, in a perfect world, would have liked to have had a few more folks in the home.”
According to those who were present, the guests arrived at approximately 6 P.M., with the Clintons following an hour later. The President chatted and posed for pictures with the guests. Dinner was served. Following dessert and coffee, Mr. Clinton made some formal remarks, then everyone repaired to the living room where Mr. Clinton took questions. Not a single Master of the Universe asked him about Monicagate. For his part, Mr. Clinton told the assembled that he was very concerned about the Asian financial crisis. “He took quite a few questions,” said one of the guests. “The Secret Service was anxious to get him out after dinner, but he was enjoying himself and I think he wanted to take the questions informally.”
But at various points, some of the night’s guests observed, Mr. Clinton looked whipped, as if, said one, “these events [of the last few days] had taken their toll.” On this evening and at other events over the course of the weekend, the consensus of those who observed the First Couple, was that Mrs. Clinton eclipsed her husband in the energy and conviction department. It wasn’t what Mrs. Clinton talked about–the White House’s Millennial project, welfare reform–it was how she said it. This couple is so often on the defensive, yet she exuded a confidence that juiced those assembled. “I was dazzled by her,” said one person who attended Mr. Wasserstein’s dinner. “When [the President] talks, you kind feel like you’ve read it before, but when she talks, she has some creative insights and a fresh way of expressing them. I was very impressed.” She’d managed to elevate the plane.
At the Aug. 1 D.N.C. Summer Lawn Party held at the Amagansett home of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, Mrs. Clinton had an opening act: golf rockers Hootie & the Blowfish. By the time Mr. Patricof had taken the stage to plug the group’s new record, the holders of $250 tickets–a sea of bony women and slick-haired men that included former mayoral candidate Andrew Stein, Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross and, some swore, ER star Gloria Reuben–had been there for a good hour and a half. Those who had opted for the $1,000 ticket over the $250 one had found that the extra $750 entitled them to only one other perk: entrance to a claustrophobic roped-off rectangle that had been set up in front of the stage. All concerned had basically come to the realization that all of the real celebrities were inside the Baldwin manse waiting for the President to arrive.
Those people had either ponied up $5,000 or sold at least that amount of fund-raiser tickets, and they were getting tense. In a room of the Baldwins’ virtually furnitureless house, Mr. Clinton’s advance team had set up a “funky blue curtain,” as one person present called it, and some flags and other Presidential-looking accessories for the photo session. Meanwhile, the Baldwin bathroom was stocked with a single roll of toilet paper and two hand towels. Among the name-tag-wearing guests were actor Chevy Chase; director Robert Benton; VH1 chief John Sykes; real estate heir Bill Rudin and his wife, Ophelia; Sony Music Entertainment Inc.’s chief, Tommy Mottola, and TriBeCa Pictures co-founder Jane Rosenthal; public relations executive Dan Klores; and the co-owners of Nick & Toni’s restaurant, Toni Ross and Jeff Salaway. Mr. Patricof, ever the emcee, introduced each of the guests to the President when he and the First Lady finally arrived.
Mr. Chase managed a space near the front of the meet-and-greet line and, following his audience with a jaunty, jacket-slung-over-one-shoulder Potus [President of the United States], he wandered out to the brown grass on the periphery of the tent and smoked a cigarette, which he eventually stubbed out purposefully in the dry tufts of Mr. Baldwin’s lawn. When The Transom approached the tanned and very healthy-looking comedian, he identified himself as “a friend” of Mr. Clinton and said he was going to dinner with him later (and he did, at a Southwestern place called Turtle Crossing). He wanted to know what we made of the most recent headlines involving Monica Lewinsky. When the subject of the dress at the F.B.I. lab came up, Mr. Chase seemed genuinely horrified at what his friend was having to endure in the media. “Good God,” he said.
On the far left of the now Blowfish-free stage, a young woman in a black dress waited expectantly near a microphone. “That could be Monica’s friggin’ sister,” brayed one woman to her date. The woman turned out to be a signer for the deaf who was eventually joined on stage by the Clintons, various local Democratic operatives and Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Basinger. When Mr. Baldwin was called up to the podium, he spent much of his time torquing up the crowd for Mrs. Clinton, saying of the First Lady, “one Democrat stands alone in her contribution to the President’s success.” After pausing for applause and shouts of “We love you Hillary,” Mr. Baldwin introduced Mrs. Clinton as the “most effective First Lady in the history of the United States.”
There was a clarity and intensity to Mrs. Clinton’s voice as she addressed the crowd, noting with a smile that there were many in the audience who had “never contributed to a political party before.” After asking this crowd of believers to “get the message across” of the dangers of thinking “we’re too important or busy to be part of the political process,” Mrs. Clinton began to subtly and deftly address the subject that no one dared speak. “This is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” she told the gathered, a kind of place far away from “what’s going on in Washington.” Sometimes, Mrs. Clinton added, the onslaught of television talking heads “even gives you a headache.” Her voice taking on the hardness and focus of an evangelist, Mrs. Clinton then told the story of a woman who had been hit by a car as she stood on the side of the road, and how the woman’s insurance company had refused to pay her astronomical medical evacuation bill because she had failed to call her insurance company to obtain prior certification as she lay unconscious. “That is the kind of thing that politics should be about,” Mrs. Clinton said. “It should be about solving people’s real problems. Thank you for understanding what the President is trying to do.”
The crowd went wild and Mr. Clinton stood and stared at the First Lady with a look that seemed to suggest both shame and admiration. It is the look a husband gets on his face when his wife has shown more than once that she can be strong in the face of his weakness. And that with that strength, she’ll manage to protect the both of them.
Mr. and Mrs. Clinton embraced briefly; she pecked him on the cheek. He tried to achieve the same oratorial heights that his wife had attained, but he fell slightly short, and at one point almost faltered. Mr. Clinton spoke of meeting “a young girl” who had asked him why he wanted to be President. The remark was greeted with a sharp jeering laugh that seemed to come from outside of the tent. Mr. Clinton, seeming to regret the remark as soon as it had left his mouth, quickly backtracked to point out that she was an 8-year-old girl. “We are moving in the right direction,” Mr. Clinton said finally, before he and Hillary Clinton stepped off the stage and turned a roped-off section for the holders of $1,000 tickets into a mosh pit. People squirmed and shoved to lay their hands on some Presidential flesh and then they shoved and squirmed their way out again to rush back to the parking lot in time to make their dinner reservations. Alas, the Secret Service had the V.I.P.’s in its vise grip: Nobody was going anywhere until Potus left the property. Then the Hamptons crowd did something completely out of character. They broke out into song, into folk song , Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” A chorus of “Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams” wafted across the parking lot as the impressive apparatus swept the President away.