Even now, in the final months of Bill Clinton's final term, it is astonishing how much excitement a presidential sighting can still generate. It's the end of July, a soaking-wet Sunday, and Clinton's convoy is lumbering slowly toward the Starbucks in Chappaqua. Patrons are staring out the window, transfixed by the possibilities -- will he drop in? Or is he just passing through? The SUVs stop.
"How ya doin'?" Clinton practically bounds through the front door, all sizzle and black trench coat, and immediately starts working the room. "Hah," he says. Arkansan for hi. "Nice to meet you. Hah, I like your pin" -- HILLARY FOR SENATE -- "thanks for wearing that. Hello. Hah. Hah."
The coffee shop is filled with grown men and women, doubtless accomplished professionals and owners of capacious, well-appointed homes. They start scrambling for autographs. One fellow hands him a grande latte cup to sign; another, a scone bag. Steve Fuchs, co-owner of an advertising design firm, reaches first for a Starbucks employment application, then thinks better of it and hands Clinton a customer survey instead. ("I thought it would be kind of bad to give him a job application," he later explained.)
People must have known the president was coming. There is a suspicious number of cameras in this café for a soggy Sunday morning; Fran Krackow, a teacher's assistant at Roaring Brook School, uses up an entire disposable Fuji. (How did she know the president would be here? I ask. "We have our own network," answers her friend, Versha Roy, a tad mysteriously.) Jennifer Cook, an attractive blonde massage therapist who got in trouble the last time she saw Clinton by offering him some free deep-tissue therapy (the Daily News did a few paragraphs about it, followed by WPLJ and Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update"), is once again hoping to recruit the president as a new client. "Remember me?" she asks.
"I do," he says.
"He'll probably eat right here," says Lucianne Goldberg at Elaine's. "At Geraldo's table, keeping Ann Coulter's skinny butt out of her chair."
"I got a haircut," she says.
"I like it short."
The president orders his usual grande decaf, then weaves back through the café, shaking more hands and signing more mochaccino cups. A man hands him a custom-made HILLARY FOR SENATE button. "It's beautiful," says Clinton. "I'll put it in my collection tomorrow." More pictures. The president poses with a group of children. He signals Jennifer the masseuse to come join him.
Long after he has left, the room is still vibrating like a tuning fork. "I can't wait," says Joanna Cirasella, another massage therapist, "to see him in jeans."
It shouldn't be long now. For most New Yorkers, Bill Clinton's transition to private life is still a distant reality. But for the residents of Chappaqua, the well-to-do commuter town 35 miles north of Manhattan, it has already begun. And if their response is any gauge, the people in this city will be unable, for once, to feign indifference when a celebrity enters their midst. Almost everyone is tickled by the prospect of Big Apple Bill -- even his political enemies. "I suspect he's a lot of fun," says Georgette Mosbacher, once the chief rainmaker for John McCain's campaign in New York. "It'll make life more exciting," says Lucianne Goldberg, book agent at the heart of l'affaire Lewinsky. "As a guy, mano a mano, it'd be grrrrrreat!" gushes former Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who for two years tortured Clinton about Whitewater. "You'd wanna tell stories with him, you'd wanna play poker with him, you'd wanna watch a ball game with him! I always tell him I'm surprised he never invited me to watch the Super Bowl!"
Clinton jogging in Central Park. Clinton munching on ribs at Virgil's. Clinton sitting courtside at Knicks games and playing his saxophone at the Café Carlyle and appearing in boldface on "Page Six." He could find himself a first-rate analyst here. He could do one of those taxicab announcements. (Hah, this is Bill Clinton. Don't make my mistake: KEEP YOUR BELT FASTENED.) And never, ever again would he need to feel shame about indulging in a $200 haircut.
Granted, Clinton's New York citizenship is hardly a foregone conclusion, even if Terry McAuliffe, a VIP FOB, recently did tell the New York Times that the president will be spending "one third" of next year in New York. D'Amato thinks the man would have to be nuts. "Can you imagine the media scrutiny? Helicopters would follow him to work. There'd be a trillion paparazzi. Reporters would triple their income just by watching Bill and his latest exploits."
Plus, adds D'Amato, "Hillary's not gonna win, so that Chappaqua house -- history!"
But let's suppose Hillary does lose. Apart from New York, what other options does he have? Washington is no place for presidential has-beens; Arkansas, even if it's Clinton's mother state and host to his presidential library, is too small for him now. He's an icon, a citizen of the world. There's always Hollywood, of course, but isn't a town that worships James Cameron a tad shallow for someone of Clinton's restless intellect and humanitarian aspirations? Hollywood may offer a fat paycheck and some first-rate parties, but this is a man who has been marinating in politics since he was a teenager, who was up reading Proust at law school when all of his peers were cramming for finals.
Russell Simmons, the irrepressible chairman of Def Jam records, remembers chatting with Clinton a few months ago at a fund-raiser for his presidential library. "I was giving him a hip-hop kind of rap," he says. "I was like, 'Yo, how you gonna pay your bills? You can make a lot of money, you're Bill Clinton.' And you know what? He kept talking about Kosovo. Every time I talked about business, he'd talk about raising money for something that had to be done. The man's a do-gooder."
A man like that would not find meaning in Hollywood. Which leaves New York. It doesn't necessarily mean Clinton will spend the bulk of his afterlife here. "He's got the presidential library," James Carville points out a tad impatiently. "He's goin' to be travelin' a hell of a lot, goin' to Arkansas, goin' to Washington, goin' to commencement speeches, goin' to panels and forums, raisin' money for Democratic candidates, goin' to national associations in Las Vegas and then to Buenos Aires to chair the Commission on the Americas. It's not like he's goin' to be sittin' in that house for months at a time, thinkin' about where he's goin' to get his morning bagel, okay? Know what I mean? Know what I mean?"
Yes. But for now, the president has a mortgage in Chappaqua. Presumably, it is where Clinton will be keeping his pin-stripes, jogging shoes, and golf clubs. Even if he spends only 30 nights in Chappaqua per year, you can bet he'll spend at least 29 of his days and evenings in the city. (Trust me: I grew up in Chappaqua. Insecticide sprayings are as exciting as it gets.)