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.)
There’s a fairly recent precedent for this. Twenty years ago, another shrewd ex-president – one who also proposed an ambitious health-care plan, worked hard to improve relations with China, and got himself embroiled in a humiliating scandal – set up shop in New York. The trouble was, New Yorkers didn’t care for Richard Nixon very much. For two years, he was in the city but never of it.
But Clinton is different. Gotham has always adored him, and it will adore him even more when the police no longer shut down the streets to let him through, as they did last week. “I’ve been in 40 or 50 countries with the president, and nearly every state,” says Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser. “He got a better reception in New York than anywhere we ever went. Up or down, scandal or no scandal, New York always had the largest and most enthusiastic crowds.”
D’Amato can say what he wants. My guess is that after a while, Clinton would blend right in. He’s a born New Yorker, much more so than his wife: His metabolism is 24-7, his curiosities are bottomless, and he’s always hungry – for food, discussion, and, as we’ve so tediously learned, the messier pleasures in life. (Though someone should probably give him a quick update about the latest urban innovations: Does he know about MetroCards? About Moviefone? That he can order golf videos on Kozmo?)
And if there’s anywhere in the world where Clinton will still feel like he’s president after January 20, 2001, it’s New York. Elected office here is like tenure – isn’t Ed Koch still mayor, eleven years later? And isn’t D’Amato still Senator Pothole, now and forever, twisting arms and collecting favors and running Albany? “Some people go to New York and never really become a New Yorker,” muses Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, who once was president of Hunter College. “Bill Clinton will be a New Yorker in five minutes.”
Lucianne Goldberg is standing idly in Elaine’s, contemplating the crowd at a launch party for Bloomberg’s new Saturday talk show, Politically Speaking. “I don’t think he’d do the Le Cirque scene,” she says, giving her vodka-and-soda an ominous swirl. “The food’s not … big … enough. I’m thinking steakhouses. The Old Homestead will become chic again. And Ponte’s – that old mob joint on the river – that has huge food and a walk-in humidor. He’ll love that.”
“Please,” says Ed Koch. “There’s seven and a half million people here. He doesn’t have to worry about bumping into Monica.”
Whenever anyone, friend or foe, tries to imagine Bill Clinton in Manhattan, this is pretty much the first thing that comes to mind: food.
Goldberg continues scanning the room. “Actually, he’ll probably eat right here,” she says abruptly. “He’ll sit at Geraldo’s table, keeping Ann Coulter’s skinny butt out of her chair.”
The president has indeed eaten at Elaine’s before. But that was a lifetime ago, just before he set sail for Oxford. As Elaine herself notes, he had black hair back then. Now she hopes Clinton will come back. “He can sit anywhere he wants,” Elaine adds. “He’s the big kahuna.”
New York society will turn cartwheels to get his attention. Who wouldn’t want some of that legendary magnetism in his or her dining room, rearranging the silverware? “When he arrives,” predicts Steven Rattner, the all-star investment banker, “there will be at least twenty dinners in his honor. That will be the really funny part.”
Harvey Weinstein will probably throw one of them and invite Ben and Gwynnie. Barbara Walters will use her shindig to request the first post-presidential interview. (But Larry King will get it.) Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel will probably do something, too – when she and her husband, the new ambassador to Slovakia, aren’t in Bratislava.
The question, though, isn’t who will seek out Clinton. The question is whom Clinton himself will seek. As Russell Simmons notes: “He’s proven he can get along with the Wasps. But I don’t think he’s gonna be hanging out with them.”
Intellectuals. Scientists. Actors. Media big shots. Writers. Clinton will no doubt cut a stunning swath. “When I was in New York,” says Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, formerly the ambassador to the U.N., “I once arranged a dinner with a bunch of writers and playwrights. There was Gabriel García Marquez, E. L. Doctorow, Joan Didion, Walter Mosley … and I’ll never forget – he was the one who was mesmerizing them.”
Which says nothing of the effect Clinton will have on this city’s women, to whom he’s a 214-pound mound of catnip. Sex and the City could devote an entire episode to Samantha’s attempts to nail him. “I picture him having dinner at Da Silvano,” says Kate Bohner, sultry bon vivant and business reporter, “and people strolling by on their way to the bathroom in the back, and everyone – from Gwyneth Paltrow to Mary Boone – can’t help but stop, even though it’s cheesy. Because they just know he’s a bad boy.”
Which raises another important concern: church. Where in New York do Southern Baptists go? Worse, where in Westchester? Reassuringly, the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts says Clinton is welcome at the legendary Abyssinian up in Harlem – “as a Christian, as a brother, as a New Yorker. We love him.”
At any rate, life in New York is going to mean many late nights. So many, in fact, the president just might want to consider renting a pied-à-terre. Sure, the tabloids will have fun with it (Daily News headline: elvis is in the building!), and gossip, obviously, will ooze (“Page Six” blind item: Which former elected official has been caught canoodling with three different blondes outside his new Manhattan digs? Friends say his commuter marriage is working out just fine …). But it wouldn’t be an unreasonable investment, considering that the president is a night owl, and the trip back to Chappaqua will seem like an awful schlep at three in the morning.
“It can’t be a regular co-op,” says Mario Cuomo, who for some reason has given Clinton’s future lodgings a lot of thought. “Because co-ops are democracies run amok. They’re all run by people who’ve failed in their own elections for city councils. So scratch that. He can’t live in a condo, because the security problem is too big. And a brownstone – that presents pretty much the same problem.
“So my guess,” concludes the former governor, “is a big luxury hotel with residence apartments. And to make it perfect, it has to be next to a very big McDonald’s, because the luxury places will send up syrupy breakfasts with cream in it and call it French, and what he’ll really want is an overcooked, multilayered, cheese-laden, horribly-bad-for-you hamburger.”
He pauses for breath.
“Probably on the Upper West Side, because he’s youngish.”
“The Upper West Side?”
This is Alice Mason, the Upper East Side socialite who became one of Jimmy Carter’s biggest patrons once he left public office, the doyenne who in 1992 threw Clinton a legendary fund-raising supper, teasing $1.5 million out of only fifteen couples.
To be fair to Ms. Mason, I had not asked where Clinton would be living. I had asked whether he’d be spending any time on the Upper West Side. “Not the Upper West Side,” she says emphatically. “Who’s on the Upper West Side?”
“I think he’ll probably come down to either the Village or SoHo or Chelsea,” says Ed Koch, who lives a block from Washington Square Park.
Downtown? But isn’t that where you-know-who lives?
“Please,” says Koch. “There’s seven and a half million people here. He doesn’t have to worry about bumping into Monica.”
The truth is, every district in New York will be the Clinton district. One could easily imagine the president out-Koching Ed Koch – popping out of coat-check alcoves and gym lockers, startling people and demanding to know how he’s doing. Charlie Rangel, the Democratic congressman from Lenox Avenue, expects to see Clinton in Harlem for jazz. Kathie Berlin, a publicist and old friend of Clinton’s, envisions him spending a lot of time in Broadway theaters (“He can hum all the old standards”) and in the Garden for Knicks games. (Eight years ago, just before a White House screening of Sleepless in Seattle, Berlin remembers Clinton’s standing up, looking around the room, and declaring, “For those of you who’d prefer to watch the Bulls game, come with me!”) Sosnik, his former aide, suspects he’ll show up in places even farther-flung – like Brooklyn. And Queens. “One of the refrains I often heard from the president,” he says, “is that he spent too much time in the borough of Manhattan.”
He’ll certainly be dining at every restaurant – not just for the food but for the human contact. Patroon. Nobu. Pastis. “In February, Mr. Clinton did a fund-raiser here,” says Julian Niccolini, co-owner of The Four Seasons. “At the end of the evening, he went to the dishwashing room and shook hands with everyone. Can you believe he did that? He’s not even running anymore!”
It won’t be a free-for-all. The Secret Service, those gray-suited stoics in comic-book shades with fusilli wire dangling from their ears, will still cling to him like tape. As late as 1984, a full decade after his resignation, Nixon still had 26 agents assigned to his detail, according to his final chief of staff. They didn’t all work the same shift, obviously. But whenever he went out, even for a simple stroll down Madison Avenue, he was accompanied by at least four – two behind, one at his side, and one out in front.
His book deal “is certainly going to hit $10 million,” says agent Joni Evans. “But it’ll have to be about 25 to 50 percent personal.”
At the Grill Room of The Four Seasons, at least, Clinton can tuck them away at the bar. “He will probably eat at the center booth,” muses Niccolini. “Many people sit there. Michael Korda, Edgar Bronfman, Richard Holbrooke, Diane Sawyer …” Not to mention Vernon Jordan, Clinton’s closest pal in New York.
Given his expanded dining horizons, the president should probably join a gym. Sure, he jogs, and nothing could be finer than a morning run around the Central Park reservoir. But there are more people to schmooze with, to beguile, and – let’s be frank – to inspect at Equinox. If he joins the Reebok Sports Club on the Upper West Side, he can work out with Pinch Sulzberger at 6:30 every morning. If he joins Crunch, he can hire the trainer Monica fired. Not that we’re suggesting he has a weight problem. But he has to do something: New York does not easily forgive its celebrities for thickening. As it is, he’s just twenty pounds away from being the Post’s new Portly Pepperpot.
I check with Sirio at Le Cirque to see if his food is big enough for Clinton. “What? He has already been here several times.” So which table does the president get? “This is very tacky, people talking about tables,” Sirio grumbles. “Mr. Nixon never insisted on a table. Politicians are more or less the same. They sit in a corner and wait for someone to talk to them.”
Hillary Clinton, the person perhaps best equipped to speak about what the president likes to do in New York, will not return my phone calls. So I am forced to do the next best thing. I call Stockard Channing, who plays the president’s wife on The West Wing.
She likes Clinton, but she has serious questions about his Manhattan bona fides. “No offense,” she says, “but I don’t consider living in Chappaqua ‘living in New York City.’ Until he goes by that co-op board or looks for a rental apartment, he’s just not a real New Yorker.”
Ever since the clintons moved to Chappaqua, the town has become a tourist destination, a carnival. John Vize, the affable New Castle police lieutenant in charge of potus detail, says his officers were at one point clocking 100 cars per hour on Old House Lane, the tiny cul-de-sac the Clintons now call home. Protesters have held candlelight vigils there to protest violence in East Timor. Once, Vize’s men had to shoo away a few dozen curiosity-seekers from Japan, all disgorged by a giant tour bus. “They were running all over the lawn, cameras a-blazing,” he sighs. “One person climbed a tree. It was ridiculous.”
Kathy Sloane, the Realtor who found the house, says the search was a nerve-racking experience, and it wasn’t just because her clients were the Clintons and the First Lady was in a hurry. The president, as it turned out, was an unruly charge. “I never knew whether he was looking at the house or not,” she says. “He seemed to spend the entire time in the kitchen, drinking coffee and talking to the owners.” The day Clinton visited his future home, she adds, he was on the grounds for only a few minutes before slipping out the back door, wandering into the adjoining yards, and chatting up his new neighbors. Before leaving, he dragged all of them onto the front lawn for a group photo. With their dogs.
My father was stunned when he first heard the news. “Chappaqua?” he sputtered. “But … why? That’s not where Masters of the Universe go to retire.” He’s right, my father. The real big shots in Westchester – Glenn Close, Nelson Peltz, Christopher Reeve, Carl Icahn, Robert Rubin, Ralph Lauren, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon – live on sheltered, multi-acred estates in Bedford and Pound Ridge, about twenty minutes away.
Chappaqua, on the other hand, is a town filled with hardworking doctors and lawyers and bankers, affluent but not extravagant, and almost entirely devoid of what the president’s critics might call distinguishing characteristics. There are no movie theaters, and there’s only one bookstore. My folks finally left two years ago, when they looked around and realized they were the only ones on their block without swing sets and a pram.
The president’s new block is perhaps the most surprising of all. You’d think that for $1.7 million, he would have found some secluded place at the end of a country lane – it’s possible in Chappaqua. But Clinton didn’t. Old House Lane is a resolutely unregal address, a short spur off Route 117, and its homes are unattractive, overgrown, and piled on top of one another. If you’re curious, you can drive to the end of the cul-de-sac and see the president’s new white house yourself, so long as the Clintons aren’t there, and so long as you don’t mind a few exasperated stares from the Secret Service, which always keeps its blue sedans parked at the foot of the driveway. It’s nice enough. But not $1.7 million-nice. It looks nothing like the home of a former president. More like the home of a suburban dentist.
No matter. “I think that house will be full all the time,” says Berlin, who first met Clinton at the Kentucky Derby in 1980. “At the Arkansas governor’s mansion – which, by the way, was smaller than the worst apartment in New York – they spent all their time in the kitchen, because it had a counter and great seats and Hillary’s a great chili-maker. And I think here, they’ll do the same. That’s where visitors will congregate. They love to entertain, but their entertaining style is very informal.”
The natives are excited. They talk about running into him on the golf course of the Whippoorwill Country Club. (Though if Winged Foot in Mamaroneck accepts him, they’ll understand.) Wendy Egan, a waitress at the Chappaqua Restaurant and Café, says people still quiz her about what Clinton had when he came into the restaurant for brunch on February 25 (decaf coffee, dry bagel, ham-bacon-and-sausage omelette) and specifically request to sit in the same booth. “I have customers handing me their phone numbers,” she says, “telling me, ‘Call me when he next comes in.’ ” She rolls her eyes. “Did you know that people stake him out? When they know he’s in town, they stand at the top of the hill with their cell phones.”
Of course, I was staking him out too, at Starbucks, on that torrential Sunday morning this July. He eventually made his way over to my table, planted his hands on the shoulders of me and my friend, and stared at our Sunday crossword, which at the time was 90 percent blank. “Um, we just started,” my friend told him feebly.
“It’s a good one today,” he said.
We looked at him helplessly. “I get mine on Thursday,” he explained. He continued inspecting our answers. He looked as if he were about to give us a clue.
Quick, I thought. This might be your only chance. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do as a New Yorker?” I blurted out.
He seemed startled. “What?” He was still staring at our puzzle. “Oh.” He pointed in the general direction of his house. “I’ll probably go up there and sleep for a week.”
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.