A little Clinton in Bush

Friday, August 3, 2001 at 1:00am

Sure, Bill Clinton's new office in Harlem is a political stunt. But it's a cool stunt, worthy of a political master who won two terms as president and left office with his poll numbers soaring. His successor should pay attention; he might learn something.

President George W. Bush got off to a fast start, looking comfortable and confident in his new job, but lately his presidency has seemed stalled, lacking traction or leverage. Congress is defying him on a wide range of issues from energy production to patients' rights. Foreign leaders reject his arguments on global warming and missile defenses.

The president does not inspire or intimidate people. He does not quite fill the stage or the screen, and the question that sprouted during the campaign still lingers. Is he up to the job? In the latest ABC News poll, 54 percent says Bush doesn't understand the problems of average Americans.

That stands in sharp contrast to Clinton, who survived impeachment mainly because ordinary folks always thought he did understand their problems. In fact, his sins might have worked to his advantage. People could say, "He's not perfect, but I'm not either."

We don't want to paint over those sins. Clinton is a liar and a cheat who betrayed his own family and closest supporters. But even Slick Willy's enemies admitted he was up to the job. He radiated a vitality, a magnetism that is essential for effective leadership, and no community responded more enthusiastically than African Americans.

Writer Toni Morrison called Clinton America's first black president, an odd but vivid image. And at the opening of Clinton's Harlem office, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) shouted: "There was no one kicking Bill Clinton around who hadn't been kicking us around before that. Sometimes you can pick your friends by who their enemies are."

In Clinton's first off-year election, 1994, Democrats lost control of the House. But by the end of his presidency the Democrats were surging back, fueled by black votes, particularly in the South.

More than nine out of 10 African Americans voted Democratic last year, as the party recaptured Senate seats in Georgia and Florida. Today, there are Democratic governors in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and both Carolinas, and the single biggest reason is black solidarity. So it was certainly appropriate that at Clinton's Harlem block party, the concluding anthem was that old soul song "Stand By Me."

When Clinton told that party, "Now I feel like I'm home," he was making a personal statement, not just a political one. Like many whites born in the segregated South, he was raised by and with blacks and resents racial injustice on a keenly emotional level. Northerners often lived in far more segregated communities. So the boy from Hope, Ark., probably does feel more comfortable in Harlem than, say, a child of Chappaqua.

Harlem could also come to symbolize Clinton's post-presidential life. He cites as his role model Jimmy Carter, the only other Democrat to win the Oval Office since 1964, and that's a good choice. Carter understood that a former president could use his celebrity to focus public attention on a few important issues

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