Clinton's Hot In Harlem

Former President Bill Clinton shakes hands while signing copies of his book, entitled "My Life" at the Hue-Man bookstore in the Harlem section of New York, Tuesday, June 22, 2004.
By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

They've come to get a glimpse of Bill Clinton. People are on ledges, pushing through crowds. The former president is all smiles, shaking hands, loving the affection. Friendly yells: "Bill over here." Flashes are sputtering.

In his blue suit and blue tie, Mr. Clinton stands at the entrance of a small independent black bookstore, a block south of the Apollo Theatre. Reporters try to get a comment. Chants of "We love Bill" begin.

African Americans certainly do love him. Mr. Clinton is at home in Harlem USA. He's here to sign 2,000 copies of his memoir, on the second stop of his national book tour.

"I hope I can sell you some books today," he tells three of the four female black owners. They thank him for his support. He jokes, "I told Hillary I was coming, and she said she'd give me a little merit badge."

Chuckling, Mr. Clinton nearly skips through the store, his head bobbing around curiously, scanning book titles. "I love this place," he says. "Hel-looo, hel-looo," he drawls gaily to the employees.

He stands beside Jacque Reid, the BET anchor, who dons a crisp pink suit and pink heels. Mr. Clinton begins pointing to the books behind her.

He likes "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: A Memoir," by E. Lynn Harris. He puts his hand on a book about hip-hop history, calls it "interesting," and explains to Reid that it comes from a "Caribbean slant."

"I am about 50 books behind where I normally am this time of year," Mr. Clinton admits, like he has been slacking. The former president just spent two years finishing his memoir. "I'm reading Walter Mosley's book now," he adds.

But BET's Reid wants to get to her interview. She asks Mr. Clinton why African Americans like him so much, why a staggering 90 percent approve of his presidency.

"I think they supported me because they knew I was supporting them," he tells her in an interview to be aired Wednesday on BET Nightly News. "I think that we tend to like people who like us. I don't think it's very complicated. I think that the African American community senses – they don't think anybody is perfect, and they believe in redemption."

And that's all Mr. Clinton wants now, a little redemption.

Harlem has plenty, because as he puts it, African Americans are a "profoundly religious community, in the best sense."

The former president has spent much of the last few days explaining to reporters why he is imperfect, attempting to redeem himself for having an affair with an intern and then lying to America about it.

There is no need to explain that here, says Marian Adams, 54. "We know people make mistakes," she adds tersely, narrowing her eyes to stress her point. Adams, an African American, has been in line since 10 a.m; it's now about 5 in the afternoon.

"Clinton said he did it because he could," she continues. "Every other president did something, I'm sure, but they weren't scrutinized like he was."

Adams wagers that Mr. Clinton's connection to African Americans has to do with his "upbringing," she adds, "I think it's inbred."

Mr. Clinton says the same. "It was unheard of, a white middle-class kid with grandparents in the 1950s [who were] for integrating the schools and hated racial discrimination," he explains to BET.

In the context of mid-century Little Rock, Ark., he recalls what his grandfather often told him: "I should look up to people that others looked down on."

And possibly that's it, African Americans see in Mr. Clinton a president who didn't look down on them.

BET, the leading African American network, is the only non-mainstream news outlet to score an interview with Mr. Clinton. To know the Mr. Clinton of 125th St., Harlem's historic thoroughfare, is to not be surprised. Two blocks west is his Harlem office, where he set up his post-presidency headquarters.

His 957-page memoir, as with all presidential memoirs, is an effort at remaking his image. But Harlem is the one place Mr. Clinton doesn't have to convert, says 38-year old Rita Ewing, the ex-wife of New York Knick legend Patrick Ewing, and one of four co-owners of the Hue-Man bookstore.

"We found out about a month ago he was coming here," she says, blushing slightly.

"It's the makeup," she explains demurely, then smiles and admits it's because Mr. Clinton has come to her store. "It's not just because we are an independent bookstore, or an African American bookstore. Our store is struggling. It's very challenging trying to compete with the major chain bookstores.

"And to be here in Harlem, the epicenter of African American culture. Where else could he go on his first day?" Ewing asks, spreading her arms out wide with pride.

Harley the Buckle Man couldn't agree more. To 67-year-old Earl Harley, Mr. Clinton "didn't leave us behind. Clinton, he bond with the people, he bond with blacks... He comes off real."

Harley says he "made a nice buckle for the president," holding up a belt with a silver buckle, engraved "My Life, Bill Clinton," the title of Mr. Clinton's memoir.

"I saw him on TV with no belt on, with jeans on," Harley explains. "I thought, 'Hey, I got to make my man a buckle.'"

Adams nods approvingly. "He did so much for all people," she says. "We didn't have these gas prices, did we? We didn't have no war, nowhere, did we?"

Her 21-year old nephew, Jamal Addison, died in the war in Iraq. The mention of the war brings up the coming presidential election. None of those in the front of the line feel they know Sen. John Kerry. Despite that, most expect to vote for him.

Inside, Mr. Clinton tells BET that African Americans will eventually know Kerry.

"All he has to do is get out there and be himself," Mr. Clinton says. "All he has to do is relax... let people know him... He doesn't need to change anything about him. He just needs to get out there and bring people in. That's what running for president is."