Hey Neighbor! Upscale New York suburb welcomes the Clintons, but not the crush of gawkers and media
CHAPPAQUA - The gray Chevy Suburban typical enough, but for the police escort approaches, then passes by. And so, well, that's that. End of visit. End of story.
The scattering of residents and TV crews who were waiting on the grassy bank of the Grand Union supermarket for a glimpse of the presidential motorcade now turn to leave.
"Finita la musica," shrugs an Italian man to his wife.
But then, hey, wait! Down there at the firehouse, the Suburban is stopping! And they're climbing out the president and the first lady to greet the folks. The Grand Union contingent hustles right over.
Mr. Clinton, jaunty in a black bomber jacket and more angular about the jaw than on TV, ambles across the street toward the guys at the Mobil station, with its "Welcome Hillary and Bill" sign, as his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her dual role as first lady and a (still unannounced) candidate for the U.S. Senate, smiles and reaches out to shake hands.
Minutes earlier, the Clintons walked hand-in-hand onto the lawn of their white-columned, Dutch colonial home, for a news conference. Mrs. Clinton stepped back to let her husband be the main event. He is the president, after all, although she and her campaign are the reasons these TV satellite trucks lumbered into town.
When she was asked a question about "soft money" fundraising, which her likely opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has made an issue she quickly put the kibosh on all such discussion: "We're going to talk about our house this morning."
Now here she is in the firehouse driveway, moving serenely in a loose ring of Secret Service officials through this friendly throng, and the only question before her is, how does it feel to be an official New Yorker?
"It feels great!" says Mrs. Clinton..
No one dares ask those other questions the rude ones, such as: Mrs. Clinton, what are you doing with that guy? And, Mrs. Clinton, about the hand-holding is that for real?
(Where is the supposedly brutal New York press corps when you need it?)
Deeper questions, too, go unasked: What are you doing here? What are you about? What's motivating this run for office? They are not the questions to pose in a firehouse driveway. They would take too long to answer.
A woman in an orange hard hat gets in a plea on behalf of single working parents.
"Single working parents. Absolutely!" Mrs. Clinton chimes back, nodding as she heads back toward the Suburban.
A few more waves and goodbyes, then she's off with the president to the Westchester Airport.
The next morning, a banner headline in the Westchester County newspaper, the Journal News, reads, "Here . . . and gone."
GONE, BUT the reverberations linger.
All day, the village buzzes with talk of the new neighbors. In municipal offices, restaurants, shops, and on any street, people have opinions and questions and also some practical concerns.
Is all this Clinton commotion going to "louse up 117," a main truck route through town? Wally Luhman, 56, who lives in nearby Bedford Hills and runs a gas heating service, fears the local authorities will "goof it up, like when they did the golf course over."
But oh, well "People have a right to live where they want to live, I guess."
Chappaqua (pronounced CHAP-puh-quah), in affluent Westchester County, is part of the town of New Castle, 35 miles north of Manhattan, between the Hudson River on the west and Connecticut's Gold Coast on the east.
It's an upscale, sedate village, home to 11,238 people, as of the latest census. Every day, says Metro North Railroad, more than 2,000 people board trains at the Chappaqua station in the heart of downtown for a 48-minute ride to Grand Central Station. By 7 p.m., most of them have come home again, for supper and sleep.
In interviews, residents seem eager to point out that, as small-town-America as Chappaqua appears, the populace is not made up of yokels, but of "smart, successful people" CEOs and the like. Judging from the price tags in the boutiques and gourmet shops of the small downtown, which is similar in size and feel to Wickford, that must be true.
Real estate in Chappaqua is expensive. In 1999, 16 houses in town including the Clintons' sold for a million-plus, says Harmony Stern, manager of the local Coldwell Banker real estate office.
The average sale price of a more typical home is half a million dollars, she says. For that, you get 2,600 square-feet of house not new, but built in the 1970s, with four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and a family room over a two-car garage, on an acre of land.
In Rhode Island, a comparable house even newer, though, and on slightly more land, would cost half that. The average property tax bill in Chappaqua is $16,000.
This high cost of living means that many people who work in Chappaqua live between 45 minutes to an hour north, where costs are lower.
"Nobody lives here. I mean, we don't live here," says Chappaqua Police Lt. John Vize, referring to public servants like himself.
Politically, Chappaqua has changed. Once, about 30 years ago, it was full of conservative Republicans, but it's gradually come to be run by Democrats, who ran unopposed in the last election.
One enduring conservative presence is Chappaqua's largest employer, Reader's Digest.
The magazine is officially non-political, but a profile of Giuliani that ran last March couldn't have been more admiring.
"In important ways, Giuliani has turned New York around," the piece by political writer Michael Barone concludes. "He has demonstrated that big cities do not have to be sinkholes of crime and dependency, and mayors around the country have found his crime control and welfare reforms a model for their own. Regardless of what the future may have in store for him, Rudy Giuliani has already changed New York and perhaps America for the better."
Those sentiments aside, Reader's Digest is nothing if not neighborly.
Said a spokesman: "We will send a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift and greeting" to Mrs. Clinton.
"NOTHING MUCH exciting ever happens here," says resident Ryan Moss, 18, one of a continuous stream of motorists who drive up Old House Lane to check out the house; in his case, more than once. Chappaqua is "nice," he says, "but it's . . . "
". . . a small town," says his friend Todd Bookman, 18.
One with a new tourist attraction.
(The other notable landmark being the homestead of the 19th-century journalist and politician Horace Greeley, who ran unsuccessfully against Ulysses S. Grant for President in 1872 and died shortly afterward.)
"Every weekend," says Lt. Vize, "we have hundreds and hundreds of cars go down the cul-de-sac just to look at the house." One day, he says, there was even a tour bus from New York City. "It was comical."
Eric Graham, 28, of Yonkers, drives a schoolbus, not a tour bus, and since his route takes him to Chappaqua, anyway, he regularly makes a loop through Old House Lane.
On this day, he and bus monitor Maria Petit-Homme, recently of the Philippines, allow the yellow bus to idle in a cloud of diesel fumes at the end of the street while they gush about having seen the Clintons up close at the firehouse.
"Wow! He is so cute!" says Petit-Homme.
Careful, teases Graham. "Bill is in enough trouble!"
Graham is proud to have had the presence of mind to videotape the event "Eat your heart out, CNN! and he enjoyed playing at reporter. The scene, so many photographers, was "chaos," he says. "All the Pavarottis!"
If he lived in Chappaqua, he'd be grateful for the electrical charge the Clintons provide "Wow, a little action. About time! A little fire in a cold town."
THE HOUSE, which the Clintons bought for $1.7 million on Nov. 1 with a $1.36 million loan, has four bathrooms, five bedrooms, a gym and a wraparound balcony overlooking an outdoor pool.
It's the first home the couple has owned in 17 years. The last one before they moved into the Arkansas governor's mansion, and then the White House was a two-story frame house in Little Rock that they bought for $112,000.
Stern, of Coldwell Banker, has been inside the Chappaqua house and says it is "wonderful."
"I can really understand why she would buy it. It actually looks like something you might find on Martha's Vineyard," where the Clintons like to vacation. It's sunny and spacious, and has that "feeling of timelessness."
A Secret Service agent is ever-posted at the end of its driveway, and for extra security, the agency has leased the house directly behind the Clintons'.
Whenever the Clintons are in town, the entrance to the street is closed to everyone but neighbors and authorized vehicles. During the couple's first overnight at the house Jan. 6 and 7 a policeman remained there until their plane lifted off from Westchester Airport, at which point, the drive-by gawking resumed.
As pricey estates go, the Clinton house is close to the road, which makes one veteran TV news cameraman Mayer Dubinski, of Fox News suspicious.
"To me, it just seems that that house is just a showplace," he says. It's "so visible and accessible. I can't imagine that being a viable home for a first family or a former first family, when they become that."
(Dubinski also thinks the motorcade's stop at the firehouse was a planned "picture event," set up by the Clintons' advance people. "I don't think Bill Clinton said, 'Hey, stop, driver!' ")
Some speculate about whether, having paid so much for the house, the Clintons got robbed.
"I don't think it's worth the money," says Nancy Gugliucciello of nearby Somers, who drove over with a friend to size it up.
"Garbage," agrees the friend, Rosemary Panettiere.
Both women are Republicans, but "regardless," they say, they feel sorry for the Clintons' neighbors, having to deal with traffic caused by people well, by people like them.
If the Clintons are so smart, says Gugliucciello, why didn't they buy a house on a private road? Why are they ruining the lives of people on their block?
THERE ARE SIGNS that residents of Old House Lane are feeling the strain.
They are at "ground zero," observes Lt. Vize. For them, "the novelty wore off a long time ago."
There's nothing they can do about the traffic, but they try to ward off the press with fluorescent orange "No Trespassing" signs on their mailboxes, or they pretend not to be home.
An exception is Zyrafete Osmani, a native of Kosovo, who a little wearily, it's true tells how honored her family is by the Clintons' presence. If it weren't for him, she believes, the war would still be going on.
Last summer, she and her family had four Kosovo refugees living with them when, suddenly, as if out of the sky, the house-hunting Clintons, Chelsea included, showed up on the edge of the lawn.
There were introductions all around, and everyone was touched by the encounter, says Osmani, especially Mr. Clinton. "He just got red and started tears," she says, in her accented English.
The refugees, for their part, were "in shock with meeting the president. They couldn't believe. They were frozen," she says, and for two weeks afterward, they kept asking her, "Was it true?"
In October, the grateful Osmanis held a fundraiser for Mrs. Clinton at an Albanian restaurant in Manhattan, which they say raised $100,000.
Osmani is aware that some neighbors seem put-upon by the attention to their street. This puzzles her, she says, since, after all, "they're never home. They go to work in the morning. I'm here all day I watch my grandson, shop, go to doctors. I'm the one who should be complaining."
Instead, "we're happy. A lot of people would be happy."
THE QUESTION IS, would a lot of people be happy with Mrs. Clinton in the Senate?
People in Chappaqua raise several issues none of them having to do with the particular problems facing New York.
The carpetbagger issue, for one, comes up a lot.
"She has no business calling herself a New Yorker," says one resident, Janet Levy, shopping downtown.
"Does she really know this state?" asks Maureen Zelen, a customer in a local deli where "broasted chicken" is a specialty. "You gotta live here. I spent my whole life here. I understand New York City. She should just stay a lawyer, do whatever."
Others counter that New York roots are not essential to the job.
"New York is such a large, prominent state that our interests are very much in accordance with national interests," says Marion Sinek, town supervisor, a job like that of mayor. "I'm not sure I'd make a very clear distinction between what's good for New York and what's good for the country as a whole."
Another consideration for voters is Mayor Giuliani's job performance.
"Rudy's done a wonderful job," says Bill McKenney, a retiree-turned-consultant who was walking his dog on the street behind the Clintons' house. "I equate him with Mayor LaGuardia. Tough. Cleaned up the town." New York City is "a nice place to be and work now, as opposed to how it was."
Nobody in town argues with that, but some worry about the mayor's style of governance an issue Mrs. Clinton herself has raised.
"People feel that Giuliani is sort of a dictator," says Ed Costigan, 59, returning home by train from his medical-equipment job in the city. Costigan, an independent, agrees with those people "I may just vote for her."
ONCE THESE topics carpetbagging and Giuliani are dispensed with, people don't have much to say.
Some mention that the first lady presided over a failed health plan. Others know someone who met her once and found her to be "brilliant" and "articulate."
Otherwise, people in Chappaqua seem to lack a sense of Mrs. Clinton, either as a candidate or as a person.
"A lot of gray," is how deli customer Maureen Zelen sums up her sense of the Clintons. "A lot of gray between the both of them." Of Mrs. Clinton in particular, she says, "she's a lawyer," as if that's all one needs to know.
"We don't know what she's all about. It's a mystery, it's a mystery. There's something that doesn't hold together. I have vibes which are not clear. Usually, I can read people."
Not surprisingly, the Clintons' marriage comes in for some analysis, with most people except for two who are certain that it's "over," "done" believing that it's survived the storm.
In a bagel shop near the train station, Cynthia Amberg, who at 59 is enjoying a phase of "post-menopausal zest," confesses that she herself has "the hots" for the president.
"The naughtier he is, the more attractive I find him," she says. "But I'm not his wife."
Mrs. Clinton is "a gutsy lady," says Amberg. "I admire her in many ways."
Rather than succumb to depression, or badmouth the President in public, the first lady was sturdy "Her ship was going down but she wasn't going with it."
Around the corner, at a thrift shop run by Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, volunteer Wendy Wolf is of a different mind: "Why don't you tell her to please move to Rhode Island? I may move to Rhode Island now. . . . Yesterday, you couldn't park in town. Every satellite dish in carnation was here."
Wolf likes Giuliani he's done a lot for the city and has "a longstanding policy on Israel, which Hillary doesn't have." Wolf wonders, though, whether the mayor can "keep his foot out of his mouth long enough to win the election."
Fellow volunteer Fran Krackow, 47, says she wouldn't vote for Giuliani because of his "sick" reaction to a controversial art exhibit in Brooklyn. "I know him personally," she adds, having once attended a wedding he performed.
"You know him personally?" says Wolf. "What's with his marriage?"
A FEW WEEKS AGO, the Clintons returned to Chappaqua and stayed two nights, to much less fanfare "just two cameras watching and only a couple of people on the road," said a resident who asked not to be named. (He was quoted so thoroughly the last time, some townfolk gave him grief, so he thinks he'll lay low for a while.)
The difference in news coverage makes him and others think life with the Clintons might actually get quite routine.
"Nothing's going to change, really," says Osmani, the Kosovo native on their street.
Even if, at the end of what is bound to be a bruising campaign, Mrs. Clinton loses, Osmani is sure they'll remain in Chappaqua. After all, she reasons, they'll need to live somewhere, and this is "a nice place to live."
Lt. Vize predicts differently.
If Mrs. Clinton loses, he says, "I'd kind of be surprised if they did" stay. "Helluva lot more cheaper places to live than here."
And if she wins? "I don't think anybody knows. I don't think they know."
Whatever happens, Vize intends to "roll with the punches."
The novelty is bound to wear off a bit, he says, but there will always be "a lot of attention focused on that house and on them, and the media and curiosity-seekers coming out of the woodwork."
Mrs. Clinton is expected to formally announce her candidacy the first week of February.
Vize figures there's "a good chance" she'll do it in Chappaqua "from the, quote, New York home, you know what I mean?"