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Mayor Bubba

Bill Clinton, mayor of New York. A sequel of sorts.

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In the year 2010, when I was teaching at the Harvard School of Government, I published my great work, The Kabuki of State Symbols. Now, don’t pretend that you’ve read my book, because we both know you haven’t, and that’s fine.

I didn’t write my book for praise or acclaim, and only rarely do I check my sales rank at Amazon.com.

But I did happen to be on that site one morning in the summer of 2010. I saw the same three reader reviews I had posted under various names in order to avoid confusion, and the one screed by that Stanford nimrod who doesn’t know the first thing about Kabuki or state symbols. I also saw the following:

Kabuki of State Symbols—Four stars (out of five)
“Exactly.”

This enigmatic praise piqued my curiosity. I did a search and found that “Bill C.” of Chappaqua had read and blurbed almost 600 books in the prior year, usually posting his opinions between two and four in the morning. The range of this Bill C. was astonishingly broad and sort of dorky too. There were books on dog care and rose care and grooming your cat; on jazz, math, shoes, teeth, Buddhism, and model railroading; on losing your love handles and building a great golf swing; on Degas, Hawthorne, Plato, James and Dolley Madison, James and Marilyn Monroe, the humidor as gift, twenty haunted houses of the Hudson River Valley, Cooking the Malaysian Way, So Now You Own a Table Saw, and, yes, my own humble study of Kabuki and state symbols. Who was this mysterious Bill C.—this shaggy (so I pictured) omnivore?

A few months later, in December, I received an answer in the form of a phone call from Reed Blajasevic, an old friend from my Fulbright days in Paris. Bill Clinton had just been elected mayor of New York. Reed, by then a lawyer at a big firm in Manhattan, was advising the transition. Reed said, “He loved your book. He says it’s the best thing ever written on Kabuki and state symbols. He wants you on the team.”

Chelsea, now married to the rock musician Beck, lived on a farm in Oregon, raising llamas and a flock of little Becklets.

No one was really sure why Bill Clinton had decided to run for mayor to begin with. There were rumors of various “arrangements,” murky quid pro quos, but the simplest seemed to be that Bill Clinton, a decade out of power, was bored and perhaps a little lonely. His wife, a U.S. senator, was often out of town. His daughter, Chelsea, now married to the rock musician Beck, lived on a farm in Oregon, raising llamas and a flock of little Becklets.

Whatever Clinton’s reasons for seeking the job, he planned to have an impact as the mayor of New York. Reed said that Clinton’s City Hall would be something special, something new, a gathering of Ivy-flavored urban-studies wonks, every résumé studded with advanced degrees and prestigious grants, with Watsons and Rhodeses and MacArthur Geniusships, a geek army on a bold Tolkienish quest—call it the Fellowship of the Bunting. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such talk? A week after Reed’s call, I resigned from Harvard and moved to New York City.

My title in the new administration was deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Aviation. But my duties were, like Bill Clinton himself, rather more protean. I recall one afternoon during our second summer in power, I received an urgent message: Clinton needed me ASAP. He was in Queens, speaking at a Baptist tabernacle in Hollis. I drove out to meet him.

The mood in the administration was rather glum just then. We were suffering, I think, from the first bout of scandal fatigue. Scandals were viral for Clinton somehow. Most of these were puffed up from nothing by the Bill-o-phobic right, whose hatred for the man remained a solid 50 decibels above psychotic. In our first month in office, there had been the revelation of a taped conversation between two party captains from the Dinkins wing of the machine. The captains claimed that they had persuaded Bill to hold the seat through 2014, by which point young Adam Clayton Powell IX, the rising star of Harlem, would be finished doing time for that mail-fraud conviction and be ready to jump back into the mix. Outer-borough Jews and Catholics went nuts over this tape. Mayor Bill just smiled, waved at people from parades, and the thing blew over.

A greater source of strife was the rivalry between Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Rudy had, of course, been elected president of the United States in 2008. Having moved to the national spotlight, President Rudy now seemed to view the city much as an ex-girlfriend who, having loved him and “lost” him, should never love or date or even have a functional relationship with anyone else ever again. Enraged by Clinton’s effortless rapport with most New Yorkers, Rudy rained numerous punishing blows upon the boroughs, cutting matching funds for the city’s bid for the Olympics, declaring all of Staten Island to be a “National Wilderness Area” and ruling it directly from the Oval Office.


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