Town basks in Clinton glow

Skaneateles: A New York hamlet gets its moment in the sun as it rolls out the red carpet for a vacation visit by the first family.

August 30, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SKANEATELES, N.Y. -- Long after announcing that the Clintons are not welcome at his fish fry when their much-publicized vacation begins here today, Doug Clark is still getting hate mail. So the restaurateur with a fishhook in his cap did something in this tiny lakeside village that might strike a chord in Bill Clinton's Washington:

He called his lawyer.

"My lawyer says I gotta keep my mouth shut," said Clark, owner of Doug's Fish Fry, who nevertheless went on to explain, in the latest of dozens of interviews on the subject, why he believes the Clintons have corrupted American politics and offended his sense of morality. Now he is such a local celebrity that people on the highway recognize him and honk. "My lobsterman -- I never met the guy -- he tells me on the phone the whole Maine coast is talking about me."

On Saturday night, a tableful of residents atta-boyed him between bites of fried scallops and shrimp. Joe Detrick, a vacationing Florida salesman, waited for Clark by the cash register for more than 20 minutes with his fish-print shirt halfway unbuttoned -- hoping to give it to Clark straight off his back in a show of GOP solidarity.

"I want him to know I support him as a citizen of the United States," Detrick said. "Plus, he liked my shirt."

Still, in this picturesque upstate New York hamlet where Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly 3-to-1, not everyone agrees with Clark. His attitude has triggered angry letters to the editor and a threatened boycott. Even folks who regularly rant against the president and blast the idea of his wife's all-but-announced run for the Senate are loath to speak ill of their visit.

To many here, the Clinton's five-day vacation is the town's patriotic moment in the fading summer sun, a chance to have a brush with history or, at the least, make a buck or two. Most people in Skaneateles (pronounced "skanny-atlas") seem eager to demonstrate their delight with the town's first-ever visit by a sitting president. This rural town of 7,526 is hauling out the bunting, repainting the porches, dressing shop windows and flying American flags from sailboat masts on the lake.

"Everyone is just drooling at the possibilities," said Peter Wiles, who works in his family's local boat-tour business, Mid-Lakes Navigation. "I sent a letter to the White House to see if we could get them to take a boat ride with us, and I let as many people as possible know I'd be happy to do anything. I mean, this is huge."

Such excitement is new for Skaneateles, noted mostly for the occasional visiting Baldwin brother (the actors' mother lives nearby) and a crystal lake so clear that residents drink from it. In this town where the phone book is only 49 pages long, the Clinton visit brings with it enough buzz to last all year.

And that gossip is more overheated by the minute. Townspeople are envisioning a high-tech Secret Service operation requiring all but the 6th Fleet. One rumor had the Navy stationing a submarine in 16-mile-long Skaneateles Lake; another contended that the lake would be closed so that Navy SEALs could stay underwater to patrol it. More talk had the Clintons moving to Skaneateles forever.

A host of invitations

Despite appearances, this affluent community 15 miles southwest of Syracuse -- where the average salary tops $60,000 -- is not so out of touch with the ways of the world. Rosalie's Cucina, an Italian restaurant where the Clintons are expected to dine and experience a dose of local color, is owned by the man who created the Fuddruckers hamburger chain. Its chef worked at the classic power-dinner haven, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.

Almost everyone, it seems, is angling for a private Clinton moment. The president was asked to play saxophone Wednesday night at Morris's Grill, a biker bar, and urged to come to services Thursday at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Radio station Hot 107.9 FM invited Chelsea for a date with Woody Pienkowski, an on-air personality who recently rolled down a hill encased in bubble wrap. And Hairtique Salon, which created a first lady Barbie doll accessorized with faux fur and a lectern, offered Mrs. Clinton a free facial.

But the Clintons have other engagements. After a trip to the State Fair in Syracuse today -- an annual event that draws about 80,000 people a day -- the president is booked for two days of golf this week. And the first lady is expected to do some unofficial "listening" with local politicians and mingling in downtown Skaneateles. On Thursday, the couple will attend a $250-a-person fund-raiser organized by a lawyer in nearby Cazenovia.

Sales with a Clinton touch

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