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Clinton comes to Harlem

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The President chooses a neighborhood most like himself

If a man could morph into a neighborhood, Bill Clinton would be Harlem. So when the former President decided to forsake expensive and unseemly midtown-Manhattan office space and set up shop uptown, at 55 West 125th St., in the most famous African-American area in the country, one knew that it was a personal decision, not just a politically clever one.

He said as much when he toured the neighborhood and recalled that as a student in the 1960s, he used to "walk down 125th Street all the way west. And people would come up and ask me what I was doing here, and I said I don't know, I just liked it; I felt at home."

The thing about Harlem, and the President too, is that you don't know where you are from day to day, but you do know you are in a place that is exciting, tragic, alternately deadly and life affirming, beautiful, melancholy, delicious, religious, full of equal doses of history and flim-flam, and above all, enduring. Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance writer, created a character for his columns called Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, who boasted: "I've been insulted, eliminated, locked in, locked out, and left holding the bag. But I am still here." Sound familiar?

When told of the Harlem move, comedian Chris Rock exulted: "He's black, he's blue, he's just the best of all time." Clinton is the national bad boy, yet he is also the best. He has always seemed most comfortable in black churches, where one senses that his soul--the decent-if-boiling entity so frequently disguised by bad-boy behavior--was truly connected.

The Harlem-office decision in some ways certifies that connection. Ever since it became a prominent black area, around 1910, Harlem has been two contradictory neighborhoods-- both the Zebra Room and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Rudolf Fisher, another Renaissance author, described the place in his novel The Walls of Jericho: It "remains for six nights a carnival, bright with the lights of theaters and night clubs...Then comes Sunday, and for a few hours Seventh Avenue...reflects that air of quiet, satisfied self-righteousness peculiar to chronic churchgoers."

Transfer those opposites to a man, and there's old Bill-- good as gold, one day a week. Like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, like Harlem's former Congressman, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., like Gabriel Grimes, the preacher father in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, he sins and repents, and then comes Monday.

Baldwin hated the Harlem of the 1950s, when drugs, the numbers game and prostitution poisoned a place graced by George Gershwin and Billie Holiday during the decades before the end of the Second World War. In the 1960s, when Clinton walked 125th Street, things got worse. But from the teens to the mid-1940s, the joint jumped. Claude McKay celebrated the idea of coming Home to Harlem, where life was sensuous and exotic; Zora Neale Hurston moved up there after writing Their Eyes Were Watching God; Countee Cullen wrote his poems; W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey delivered their polemics; and Lena Horne sang in the chorus at Ed Small's Sugar Cane Club.

And these days, Harlem is on the rise again, with Disney moving in, and Rite Aid and Magic Johnson's movie theater. And Starbucks and the Gap. And a revitalized Apollo Theater, and the fashionable houses of Striver's Row made fashionable again. And now, who should appear, ready to do business, but the Comeback Kid himself?

Like the former President, Harlem attracts, repels and attracts again. It is a sad and brazen place and yet, oddly, one in which it is possible to see something essentially American that one cannot see elsewhere. Here all the music and shadows of the country flow together. Here thrives the figure of the adorable con artist, like Harlem's Mr. Rinehart in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, whose "world was possibility." He was "Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the lover and Rine the Reverend." His multiple identities occupied "a world without borders...where Rine the rascal was at home."

This is how one begins to see Clinton, and how history may see him as well--in his wide-brimmed hat and million-dollar zoot suit, and a smile for everyone. After the heist of the White House gifts, after the shady pardon of Marc Rich and the latest brother-act pardons of the Clinton Going-Out-of-Business sale--long after Monica--he emerges on 125th Street, larger even than himself. He is the fallen preacher, the three-card-monte dealer, and the best of all time. And he is going to bless and disappoint and fool us again. But what the hell.



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Cover Date: March 5, 2001

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