NEW YORK - Bill Clinton has been a blur in the six months since he left office, bopping from sporting events to elite parties to overseas speaking junkets with barely a pit stop. But yesterday he finally stood still for a moment - long enough, at least, to officially open his Harlem office and greet his new neighbors at a block party in his honor.
"Now I feel like I'm home," Clinton told the folks at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Plaza, where a crowd of several hundred gathered amid red, white and blue balloons to welcome him.
Supporters waved fans with pictures of the former president (one man drew dreadlocks on his Clinton in a gesture of solidarity), called out "We love you, Bill" and sang "We Shall Overcome" as Clinton wiped his eyes.
In turn, the former president, who has been so busy globe-trotting that he will have visited every continent but Antarctica by next month, made himself a citizen of the new Harlem.
"You were there on the darkest days and the best days," Clinton told the crowd, some of whom had waited since sunrise to see him. "And I want you to know I want to be a good neighbor in Harlem on the best days and the dark days."
By the time the Harlem Sax Seven played "Stand By Me," he had carved out a heavy workload, promising to use his new office to promote AIDS education, poverty relief and economic empowerment. With his Harlem speech and another slated for Thursday in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton insiders said, he is signaling his intention to involve himself once again in the issues with which he was associated as president.
If so, it's a switch from the first phase of his post-presidency, which was perhaps most notable for Clinton's glitzy travel, celebrity hobnobbing and attempted escapes from controversy.
Since leaving the White House, Clinton has been a picture of restless energy. There he was cheering on Andre Agassi at tennis' French Open. Then - voila! - he re-emerged at a Santa Monica beach house, shooting pool with model-actress Elizabeth Hurley and chatting with rocker Sheryl Crow. After that he popped up in Manhattan, tan and trim at a soiree with longtime cover girl Christie Brinkley and more beautiful people. Then it was onward to England, for a seat in the royal box at Wimbledon.
"It's called living," said friend and former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. "That's the luxury of being out of office."
In the next phase of his presidential afterlife, Clinton will continue giving speeches (he has averaged more than 12 a month since leaving office, about half of them unpaid, an aide said). Associates said he will also focus on a range of causes, such as earthquake relief in India (he has helped raise $10 million already) and educational exchanges for youth in South Africa.
Until now, when not on the road, he has spent most of his time out of sight at the Clinton home in Chappaqua, N.Y. He was the multitasking suburbanite in the Dutch colonial, getting a briefing from a former staff member on world events or giving political advice to his wife, Democratic senator Hillary, who shows up on weekends. He has supervised the staffs that handle his presidential library, speaking engagements, memoirs and philanthropic efforts.
Now the Harlem office will be the nerve center for all these endeavors and, as Clinton's aides said, the physical anchor for his post-presidential career.
The office at 55 W. 125th St. is the penthouse of a nondescript building, a light space done up in creamy earth tones with the help an A-list decorator who outfitted the home of hip-hop impresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. This being New York, the space makes a fashion statement - oversized chairs designed by singer-actress Madonna's brother Christopher Ciccone, for starters.
Clinton appeared at his welcome party without Hillary and daughter Chelsea - they were in Washington with the senator's mother, who was in the hospital. He might have felt a little less than comfortable in his new neighborhood: About two dozen New Black Panther Party protesters, afraid his move would hurt Harlem by gentrifying it, continuously interrupted the two-hour ceremony with chants such as "We don't need the white man!"
But most of the crowd was solidly with Clinton. "Bubba, he keeps bouncing back," said spectator Carmeta Rodney, "No matter what, he's always one of us."
Clinton, at 54 one of the youngest ex-presidents in U.S. history, has held elective office for nearly a quarter of a century. Now he is experiencing the odd sensation of unelected life. It pained him at first, friends said, but now feels liberating.
"I spent a couple of weeks traveling with him in Europe and India, and a couple of times things just weren't as easy as they used to be," former spokesman Joe Lockhart recalled. "But actually I think that's one of the things he likes best now. If he wants to stop and get a cup of coffee, the Army doesn't have to be called up to secure the coffee shop. It's a freedom he's relishing."