Susan Schindehette
May 14, 2001 12:00 PM

In March, when 12-year-old twins Amanda and Jonathan Schwebel needed help with a school project on the impact of technology on daily life, they decided to ask their new neighbor up the road for his take on things. The twins—seventh graders at the Robert E. Bell Middle School in Chappaqua, N.Y.—dropped off their typed request at the rambling white colonial on Old House Lane not knowing what to expect. But the very next afternoon they received an enthusiastic response: Yes, neighborly Bill Clinton was available—right away, in fact. An hour later the twins found themselves in the living room of the former President, who sat in a rocking chair and spent the next 60 minutes discussing society’s growing reliance on laptops and cell phones—as well as such vital issues as his own golf swing. Later Amanda pronounced her host “very charming” and the meeting a great success. “I didn’t expect to hear back from him,” she says. “I especially didn’t think I’d hear back so fast.”

Yes, Bill Clinton has some time on his hands. In the 100 days since he stepped off the Air Force’s Special Air Mission 28000 at JFK Airport and into private life, he has been feeling his way, sometimes awkwardly, into his role as an extraordinary ordinary citizen. His questionable moves in the waning hours of his Presidency—from pardoning fugitive financier Marc Rich to lining up top-dollar (and taxpayer-funded) Manhattan office space and carting off White House gifts (now returned)—caused a furor for weeks after he left office. Even a private dinner with former Sen. Bob Kerrey in January at a hip Greenwich Village restaurant left a bad aftertaste: Clinton was overheard by other diners telling lesbian jokes to Kerrey, an exchange later gleefully reported in the press.

Only 54 years old and possessed of formidable energy and ambition, Clinton has been forced to reckon with the limits of private life. Where he once gridlocked cities at the head of presidential motorcades, he can now be seen on the back roads of Chappaqua (pop. 16,000) with two Secret Service agents in a black Chevy Suburban, stopping at red lights just like everyone else. Instead of having a domestic staff of nearly 90 people at his beck and call, today he relies on his valet, Oscar, to handle the cooking and laundry. And don’t even bring up Air Force One. On at least one weekend he’s had to cool his heels in Washington, D.C., until wife Hillary, New York’s new junior senator, finished work so that the two could fly the shuttle back to Chappaqua together. Even the wire services no longer dog his every step. “It must just kill him to wake up in the morning, see a critical world problem on TV and not be able to call prime ministers and kings and queens to try to resolve it,” says Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a good friend. “I’ve never seen anybody in my life who so has to be in the center of the action.”

Make no mistake, however, Clinton is still a man in demand. Just not in the United States. After taking heat in the wake of the Rich pardon for his $100,000-plus-per-appearance domestic speaking engagements (Morgan Stanley clients vehemently protested his Feb. 5 speech at a firm conference), Clinton has proved to be a smash overseas. He has appeared on behalf of humanitarian causes, publicizing Africa’s AIDS scourge and raising funds for Indian earthquake victims; held private meetings about social concerns with such old friends as Nelson Mandela and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder; and made lucrative paid appearances before business executives in The Hague.

When not globetrotting (see chart, page 64), his life centers on his family and the five-bedroom, $1.7 million Chappaqua homestead that he now shares with Hillary. He was one proud father when he heard that Chelsea, who graduates June 17 from Stanford with a degree in history, is considering following his lead into postgraduate studies in politics at Oxford University. Despite Hillary’s reputation as an independent thinker, Clinton plays an active role as her political adviser, vetting her speeches and phoning her a couple of times a day no matter where he is. And he’s also overseeing home improvements. He’s no Bob Vila, but he has weighed plans to move a living-room bookcase to make more space for the large-screen TV, replaced modern floorboards to match the house’s 19th-century originals and ordered repairs for a plumbing leak that showed up after one of Chelsea’s showers. “I went up there when he was alone, and he showed me every drawer in that beautiful old farmhouse,” says friend and Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe. “The master bedroom is all windows bathed in light. He loves it.”

Although he’s obviously spending a fair amount of time puttering around the house like any typical homeowner, Clinton is also out learning his way around the neighborhood, often in search of food. He sometimes sends an aide to shop at a local health-food store, but also enjoys egg salad on whole wheat at Lange’s Little Store and the chicken souvlaki at the Chappaqua Restaurant and Cafe. “He’s like a Fodor’s guide to dining in Chappaqua,” cracks Joe Lockhart, Clinton’s former White House spokesman, who still occasionally acts as his press rep. And he recently opened an account downtown at the Greeley Home & Hardware Co. “He comes in and people gather around him and he talks to everyone,” says owner Jeff Silverman.”He loves the interaction. He’ll talk to anyone about anything.”

He’ll listen too. In February, Stosh Wegrzyn, the owner of Chappaqua’s Town Delirevealed to a The New York Times that he had s felt slighted when Clinton didn’t offer condolences after a fire damaged his prized collection of rock and roll memorabilia. A short time later Clinton stopped by for a plate of sausage and offered to lend Stosh a Yellow Submarine cookie jar that had been given to him by Beatle John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono. The next day Stosh was stunned to see Chelsea walk into his store with a shopping bag containing the jar.

“This is from my father,” she said.

“I figured he was b.s.-ing me,” Stosh replied.

“No,” said Chelsea, “he was serious.”

No longer bound by a morning staff meeting, Clinton, an inveterate night owl, is now free to sleep in until 10 a.m. whenever he chooses. Mornings, with ever-present classical music on in the background, he peruses The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and clippings faxed to him by his D.C.-based transition team. Those three government-salaried staffers (including former White House secretary Betty Currie) and seven volunteers also handle the thousands of letters that still pour in for him every week.

As he made clear while in office, Clinton also likes to talk—a lot. McAuliffe says the ex-President “wouldn’t know how to e-mail if it fell on him” and often disconnects his portable phone by mistake. Still, he constantly calls old friends and contacts for advice. Before a trip to India in April, he rang former National Security Chief Sandy Berger for a quick consultation. His old political strategists Paul Begala and James Carville are also on the auto-dial list. (He’s had no contact with George W. Bush since Inauguration Day.) Between calls he works out daily with free weights, a treadmill and StairMaster—though not because he wants to. “I love good food. That’s why I always have to exercise,” he remarked as he chowed down on fried chicken and sweet-potato pie during a March visit to Harlem, where he’ll move into an office suite on West 125th Street near the famed Apollo Theater this summer.

He’s definitely fond of his New York nest. Nevertheless, Clinton is logging frequent-flyer miles as if he is still the leader of the free world. Since leaving office he has traveled to six nations and flown (by shuttle) to D.C. at least seven times to meet Hillary at their $2.8 million house off Washington’s Embassy Row. As for their future as a couple, “they’ll stay together,” insists one close friend. “They’re just connected in some strange way.” The two, who have spent 25 of the past 100 days together (including a six-day April vacation in the Dominican Republic and two days in Yulee, Fla.), make an effort to join forces on any weekend that their schedules permit.

Hollywood’s favorite President has also turned up at a West Coast charity benefit in the company of Liz Taylor and played the links at Florida’s plush White Oak Plantation golf course with Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Clinton, who claims a 12-handicap, told one acquaintance that he intends to spend more time later this year with his friend pro golfer Greg Norman, in hopes of improving his game.) “Don’t let anyone tell you he’s not in great spirits,” says McAuliffe, downplaying published reports that Clinton’s post-Presidency stumbles have left him bitter, isolated and depressed. “He was practically born on a dirt floor in Arkansas and rose to the highest office. The glass is half full.”

On the job front Clinton has rejected a slew of offers to teach, host television talk shows, join in business deals and make commercial endorsements. Instead he plans to be the general contractor in the renovation of a legacy that has been badly damaged. “The way he left office turned out to be emblematic of the way he treated the Presidency,” says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. “There was an air of inappropriateness, a certain tackiness.” According to Washington, D.C., superagent Robert Barnett, who brokered Hillary’s controversial $8 million autobiography deal, Clinton may well answer that accusation when he signs a contract for his memoirs within the next few months. In addition to giving him a forum, the book should help cover an estimated $3.8 million in legal fees accrued during his administration for everything from his Whitewater defense to the Lewinsky scandal.

The former President is also consulting with architects on plans for the $200 million Clinton Presidential Library on 27 acres near the Arkansas River in Little Rock. Along with 100 million documents and 100,000 photos, there will be a treasure trove of Elvis memorabilia sent to Clinton during his tenure by members of the public who, like him, are major fans of the King’s. In fact, “next to Graceland, we’ve probably got the best Elvis collection in the country,” says director Skip Rutherford, a close friend. “My favorite Elvis item is a working telephone where you punch a button and Elvis sings and dances. And we’ve got a funny cartoon of Clinton and Elvis racing to the donut shop.”

For now, friends say that Clinton is coping adequately with forced retirement. “He looks more peaceful and rested,” says artist Simmie Knox, who photographed Clinton in preparation for the painting of his official portrait, which will hang in the White House alongside those of his predecessors. But as notable as his stay in office was, it will hardly mark the end of the Bill Clinton story. “Only 43 people have been to the political mountaintop,” says Rutherford. “There are a lot of tomorrows out there. He’s still got a lot of history to make.”

Susan Schindehette

Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., Sonja Steptoe and Bob Meadows in New York City, Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles, Jeanne DeQuine in Miami and Anne Driscoll in Boston

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