Last Wednesday must have dawned for Bill Clinton like one of those spring days when he still lived in the White House: crisp and clean, full of potential and renewal. It was days like this one he says he lived for as leader of the free world. He must have gazed out the window of his home in Chappaqua, or whichever home he spent the night, with expectant hope and joy for a day full of public adulation. The day would sate Clinton’s voracious political appetite, starting with a get-out-the-vote rally with the common folk in downtown Manhattan, followed by hanging with his homeys on the ride uptown to Harlem, then a night filled with opportunities to pontificate on his own greatness and the weakness of Republicans, as well as a chance to enjoy some song and dance and music making.
But sometimes those days just don’t turn out as planned. And Wednesday was one of those days.
First, the voter registration rally at New York University in downtown Manhattan. Up on stage were Clinton and his pals, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe and comedian Chris Tucker and … Rev. Al Sharpton? “Talk about finding a floater in the punch bowl,” says a New York City Democratic Party operative. “But we should have known Reverend Al would have to insert himself into the program.”
McAuliffe had set up the rally to kick off one of the bigger DNC projects of the year: voter registration events in 13 states on the same day. Clinton was the big draw. The event had been heavily promoted, and Sharpton wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation. Except no one told Al. “The reality is you can’t do anything in New York that has anything to do with Democratic politics and a TV camera and not have Al show up. If you try to block him, it just gets ugly and he makes a bigger scene than if you just let him be,” says a DNC staffer who was on the trip. “We kind of expected he’d show up, but hoped he’d have something else to do.”
And so Clinton had to hold his nose and share the dais with another Al he didn’t particularly want to be around. According to a Clinton associate, Sharpton has requested more than a few meetings with Clinton in his Harlem offices, only to be turned down most of the time. “President Clinton was deferential to Reverend Sharpton, he always is. And he’s appreciative of what the reverend does for the people of New York,” said the associate. “They are united in helping the party grow and become stronger.”
That was the message for the day: grow the party. Clinton and McAuliffe gave stirring speeches to a friendly crowd of mostly college kids and homeless people, who cheered loudest for Clinton as he railed against the Republicans’ misguided policies and emphasized how important it was for young people to register to vote Democratic to help save the world. “He will always be my president,” said one NYU graduate student. “I hear him speak and wish there wasn’t a 18th amendment.” (We didn’t say he was a history grad student.) “I didn’t vote in the last election, but if Mr. Clinton is going to stay in the political arena, I will too.”
From NYU, it was up to Harlem, for an evening at the Apollo, featuring Clinton favorites Tony Bennett and … Michael Jackson! Clinton introduced Jackson to a screaming audience and Jackson didn’t disappoint, performing three songs and bringing down the house. He was ready to do a fourth number, but planners had to pull the plug as time was running out. Others had to hit the stage, namely Clinton and his sax. This would have been one of Clinton’s first public performances since leaving the White House and he was eager to perform. But alas, all the professionals wound up taking too much time and McAuliffe was forced to break the news to the evening host: there would be no solo.
“He was disappointed that he couldn’t perform,” says the associate. “But then, he was on the stage of the Apollo theater. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand. So in a way he was performing.”
Clinton told friends backstage that he intends to perform a sax solo at an upcoming “Amateur Night” fundraiser at the Apollo, perhaps for the NAACP.