Showtime at the Apollo

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DREW FREIDMAN FOR TIME

How many times can the comeback kid come back?

As many times as he needs to. Last week Bill Clinton emerged from his self-imposed post-pardon-scandal exile. When he opened his new office on 125th Street in Harlem, with its $350,000 annual rent (his first choice, Carnegie Towers in midtown, would have cost taxpayers $800,000), it was full-frontal Clinton--winking, mugging at the most mundane remarks, pointing excitedly into the crowd as if he had just spotted a long-lost friend or a donor. Except for Senator Chuck Schumer, stage center, trying to boogie with the homeboys, it was picture perfect, a routine ribbon cutting turned into exuberant street carnival. Cable dropped its split-screen coverage of Clinton alongside the current President giving a speech, and went with full-screen coverage of an ex-President opening an office. The New York Times's headline the next day: A HERO'S WELCOME.

These moments of redemption are the narcotic Clinton craves, the high that makes the Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, Monica and Marc Rich valleys a necessary part of life. Where better to feel the love than the city of second acts, a place so crowded and alive that his bottomless need for human contact can be satisfied every time he walks down the street? Jackie Onassis went there because the locals are blase about celebrity; Clinton went for the ones who aren't blase, who pay the high rents for the frisson of seeing Gwyneth Paltrow sipping a latte at the corner cafe. Sure, it's hard to give up traffic control and Air Force One. But he makes himself a movable feast, providing sidewalk entertainment to a surprised group of rock fans waiting for the Dave Matthews Band in front of the Rihga Royal hotel. A frequent sight on the New York-to-Washington shuttle, where the prevailing ethic is no eye contact, Clinton works the aisles until forced to take his seat.

Some of the criticism of Clinton at the time of his departure--the White House vandalism, the stripping of Air Force One--turned out to be grossly exaggerated by President Bush's aides. But enough of the other stuff was serious--the White House gifts shipped to Chappaqua, the parade of pardons--that his cooling-off period had to be longer than planned. So he communed with Buddy for six months, venturing out in the suv for his morning coffee, playing a lot of golf. Hillary had some issues of her own to deal with--her pardon-mongering brothers, the gift registry, pocketing a book advance before Senate rules forbidding it kicked in. She went to ground, found her inner workhorse and rose 12 points in the polls. She had her first headline victory last week, defeating Mary Gall, Bush's pick for Consumer Product Safety Commission chair. Speculation that the Clintons would divorce soon after leaving the White House now vies with speculation that Bill might someday be the first First Gentleman. These days they're spending many weekends together.

Clinton envisions an ex-presidency like Jimmy Carter's, minus the tool belt. This week he will produce the first in a series of benefit concerts for AIDS in Africa with Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds, enough of a hip-hopper for teens to notice but not so much to remind people of Clinton's bad-boy genes. He is also helping earthquake victims in India (one trip and $10 million raised so far) and linking up small businesses in Harlem with the big ones in midtown. Of course he's cashing in like no other President has done before. This week he takes his pick of a dozen book deals, all offering advances, according to a publishing source, "beyond the papal range"--which means he beats his wife's $8 million. Domestic speech offers are matching international ones, $100,000 to start. No one is saying how much he has pocketed so far, but he has reportedly turned down $65 million worth of business opportunities.

Bush has benefited over the past six months from not being Clinton; a grateful nation got some rest. But Clinton's re-emergence is a reminder that it's nice to see a President mixing it up outside the Rose Garden. Clinton's body language says, I wish I had two more hours to spend with you; Bush's says, I can't wait to get home. Bush brags about the searing, dry heat at his remote Texas ranch, where he will spend most of August hanging with his heifers. (Real men don't go to Maine.) The softie Clinton will once again mooch a house off friends to swing among the swells on Martha's Vineyard. There must be some middle ground between these two. Bush is promising to make a few sorties out among the people during August to whip up enthusiasm for his presidency. He should review a tape of Clinton in Harlem to see how it's done.