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Bubba Takes Manhattan

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So what does an ex-President do for money? A few years ago, recalls photographer Nancy Ellison, she and her husband, William Rollnick, former chairman of Mattel, went out to eat with Clinton at the Feast of Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard. The president pulled out his credit card to pay. "I was trying like crazy to see whether it said PRESIDENT on it," she says. "I couldn't tell. But he does have a credit card, I can tell you that."

What kind was it? More important, what color was it?

She considers. "I was quite inclined to think it was a green American Express card," she says. "It wasn't, I don't think, a platinum. But you know, I don't know."

Credit, unfortunately, probably won't suffice when the president leaves office. He will need to find a way to pay off his legal bills, which now total a formidable $4 million, according to the Clinton Legal Defense Fund, and his pension, which comes to $151,800 per year, isn't enough.

Fortunately, he'll be able to do it. Fast.

It takes a memoir. If Jack Welch can score $7.1 million and Robert Rubin, a mere secretary of the Treasury, can score $3 million, it's safe to say that Clinton can get much more for his story. "It's certainly going to hit the $10 million mark," says superagent Joni Evans. "But it couldn't be a policy book. It'll have to be about 25 to 50 percent personal."

There's also the lecture circuit. Carlton Sedgeley, head of Royce Carlton, Inc., who handles the speaking engagements of everyone from Oliver Sacks ($17,500 a pop) to Tom Friedman ($30,000) to Joan Rivers (also $30,000), estimates that a mere 45-minute speech by the former president will be worth $125,000.

But books and speeches -- those are temporary gigs, not careers. Obviously, the real question for the president is what he'll actually do with himself for the rest of his life. One of the most striking things about his valedictory speech at the Democratic Convention this August was how eager, how energetic, how very much in his prime he seemed -- as if the presidency were just an eight-year warmup for things to come.

Clinton is only 54 years old. History doesn't provide too many examples of presidents who retired both young and at the zenith of their popularity. The most vivid example is probably Theodore Roosevelt, who left office at 50, went big-game hunting in Africa, did a grand tour of Europe, came back, had a falling-out with William Howard Taft, and ran again for president on the Bull Moose ticket. He lost.

A colleague suggests that the president get his own show on the Oxygen Network -- the ladies do love him. My friend Mikaela thinks Clinton should run the other half of the divided Microsoft. If Clinton sticks with his personal trainer, he may also be able to launch his own line of apparel with Phillips-Van Heusen, just like Regis. "Yes, we'd consider talking to him," says Mark Weber, the company's president and chief operating officer. "He's smart, he's good-looking, he looks good in clothes. And we've often thought that his shirt-and-tie wardrobe needed some uplifting."

For months, there have been rumors that Clinton will join the city's legion of corporate rainmakers: Citigroup with Bob Rubin, Lazard Frères with Vernon Jordan, or Forstmann Little & Co. with Erskine Bowles. But those who know him well, really well, can't imagine it. "That is not in the works," says Dale Bumpers, the former Arkansas senator who eloquently defended the president during his impeachment trial. "Not that he told me that, but I'd be greatly surprised if he joined a law firm, and the same with Wall Street. He's a thinker -- a creative thinker -- and he's a constant activist."

Eight years later, many people still don't understand this about Clinton. They fail to realize that politics is his oxygen, his lymph, and that he has organized virtually every chapter of his life around it. Boys Nation at 16. Working for Senator Fulbright throughout college. Barely attending his first year of law school because he was so busy helping Joseph D. Duffey get elected to the Senate.

For these reasons, the much-talked-about job at DreamWorks in Hollywood seems equally improbable to many who know the president well, as pleasing as it may be to think of him tooling around L.A. in his shades, barking orders into his cell phone. (Get me Ovitz!) Anyway, Clinton can see Spielberg in the Hamptons. "I'm not sure why DreamWorks would do it, other than out of loyalty," says Frank Biondi, former chairman and CEO of Viacom and Vineyard friend.

"A partner with Geffen and Spielberg?" asks Cuomo. "I can't believe that. It's too small for him. I think he's going to come as close as he can to continue doing the work he did as a president. How does he do this? He can speak to the world. We don't have anyone laying out ideas for us, giving us some intellectual guidance. That's what Clinton can do. And that's what we need. Desperately. Desperately."

Clinton has publicly said that the Jimmy Carter model of retirement intrigues him. It shouldn't surprise anyone, considering that the two men share a number of characteristics: charm, brains, Southern Democratic traditions. When Carter left office, he too was young (55) and broke. Unlike Clinton, he was also wildly unpopular, so he spent the first year of his afterlife cocooned in Plains, Georgia, writing his book and struggling with depression. By 1982, though, he was fully engaged with Habitat for Humanity and had launched the Carter Center, which has since blossomed into a 300-person non-profit that takes up causes like river blindness and guinea worm.

One of the great surprises of the Clinton presidency has been his ability to broker agreements and charm uncharmable world leaders. So now, the man who was once derided as the ultimate rube, a domestic-policy wonk at best, seems the perfect footloose diplomat -- a world superhero. And he's already wearing briefs.

"It'd be wonderful if he could do something that engages him in the problems of development and poverty around the world," says James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank. "This is not politics, either; he really feels these issues. He could use his position and his recognition to intervene on an ad hoc basis in peace-making."

He wouldn't compete with the Carter Center, either. "There's another 2 billion people coming onto the planet in the next 25 years," Wolfensohn dryly notes. "There's plenty of work to go around."

It isn't just Wolfensohn who thinks this way. A lot of people do. Friends, members of Congress, his Cabinet -- many would like to see him, as Rangel puts it, be an ambassador without portfolio, a world troubleshooter. "His reputation abroad is practically untarnished," gushes Rangel. Then, as an afterthought, he adds: "And if I get outta Congress, I'll take care of the Caribbean and Africa for him."

Clinton has been spending a lot of time abroad lately. It might come to pass. Yet Rangel, in spite of his enthusiasm, still finds it all a bit depressing. "It's going to be bad," he says. "When you have been the president of the United States and the leader of the free world, really, you can only go down."

At the end, alexander the Great saw that there was nothing left to conquer, and he wept. In general, Clinton seems to have a hard time leaving things. It shows up in banal ways, like his aides' having to drag him out of cocktail parties, and it shows up in more dramatic ways, like his seriously overstaying his welcome at the Democratic Convention. In the waning days of his presidency, he has also shifted into compensatory overdrive -- working furiously to resolve the Middle East peace talks, skipping all over the globe, fund-raising, campaigning, and fund-raising some more. Leaving the Oval Office clearly won't be easy.

It was hard enough for him to leave Starbucks that Sunday. A man handed him a fresh coffee cup to sign. "C'mon," he begged. "One more? 'To Timothy.' " Clinton obeyed and signed: TO TIMOTHY. Then he headed to the open doorway and, despite the driving rain, lingered there for a few minutes, shaking every last unshaken hand and chitchatting with the crowd. He imparted a few words of pet-care wisdom to a little girl with a puppy. Then he turned to go.

"Hey," he shouted as he was leaving. He pointed to me and my friend.

Yes . . . ?

"Good luck with that puzzle." He breezed out the door.

And to you, Mr. President. Yours is going to be much harder to solve.


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