- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The incredible shrinking diehard Clinton apologists, searching for a brass lining in the pungent cloud hanging over their man, are looking as usual in all the wrong places.

The likes of Charlie Rangel, the jolly congressman from Harlem; the Rev. Al Sharpton, the eminent Brooklyn theologian, and maybe even Julian Bond think Bill Clinton is making up with his conscience by "going home" to the brothers in the shadow of the Apollo Theater, eager to usher in Harlem Renaissance II.

Jerry Rivers, the television talk-show host who masquerades as "Geraldo Rivera," calls him "the president of 125th Street," and the ex-prez himself insists that he first walked Harlem streets in the '60s, sneaking in for a visit from London, where he was hiding out from his draft board.

"People would come up to me and ask me what I was doing here, and I said, 'I don't know, I just like it.' It felt like home." This sounds a lot like the fish stories he told about how sad he was as a barefoot boy down in Arkansas, sitting in the family's outdoor privy, reading about the wave of Arkansas church-burnings that never happened. But if people are willing to believe it, why not say it? (He also says he went straight to Harlem on landing at LaGuardia Airport. If he wants to sound like a New Yorker, he has to remember that the flights from London land at Kennedy, not LaGuardia.)

There's a Harlem connection in Mr. Slick's past, all right, but it has nothing to do with solidarity with the brothers and the younger sisters. The Harlem connection is by way of the Hot Springs connection.

Mr. Slick is merely following the example of Owney Madden, whom Lucky Luciano allowed to retire to Hot Springs in the 1940s to look after the digs set aside for Mafia bosses who were sent to take the waters in Hot Springs when they needed a nice place to cool for a spell. Owney was the button man behind the Cotton Club when it was the place where all the Manhattan swells went to slum, to watch long-legged chocolate bunnies dance to the cool jazz of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The only blacks allowed in the Cotton Club were there to wait on and entertain the white folks.

Owney was big in Hot Springs by the time Mr. Slick was just a little shaver, nodding off with his head on the coffee-shop counter at Owney's Southern Club on Central Avenue in Hot Springs while his mama was upstairs with the Buick dealers, plumbing-supplies salesmen, visiting feed-and-grain men from Memphis and other down-home socialites at the slots, blackjack tables and roulette wheels. Owney was appreciated in Hot Springs, but from a distance. When I was assigned by my newspaper in Little Rock to cover the winter dinner of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce circa 1955, they put Owney and his missus at the out-of-the-way table in the corner set aside for the reporters. He didn't seem to mind, but he noticed. "I know most of the guys in the room," he said, looking up from the hickory-smoked ham and raisin sauce a la Arlington Hotel, "but they don't want to say hello tonight. That's all right. They put me in good company." He was amused to settle for a place next to the son of a locally famous Baptist preacher.

Mr. Slick's venture in Harlem is a lot like Owney Madden's venture at the Cotton Club. He's a big-eye man when it suits him, but when it's time to live his life, he goes downtown. If it's golf, he goes all the way to Miami, where there's a nice golf club on Indian Creek with no Indians, no blacks and no Jews. He couldn't play with Vernon Jordan there. "He is a complicated man, Clinton," writes Jay Nordlinger in the Weekly Standard. "Harlem, the Met, Indian Creek. A coalition politician for sure."

But maybe not so complicated as all that. His apologists can't be so dense as they want us to think they were. Joe Biden calls him "brain dead." Chuck Schumer, rested up from trying to save the Justice Department from the Christian hordes, affects to be horrified by the Marc Rich pardon. Arlen Specter, trying to make up for voting against impeachment (if not trying to set up the ex-president's critics again), threatens a new impeachment inquiry. The story of the ex-president at bay, intones the New York Times, as if only now discovering where babies come from, "begins and ends with money and the access afforded by money. That is the unique circumstances that will linger in the minds of Americans whenever they contemplate this gross misuse of a solemn presidential responsibility."

But there's nothing unique about Bill Clinton's "circumstances" at all. He's only doing what he has been doing since he left Hot Springs, God love him. Owney Madden would be proud of him. Aren't we all?


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