Hillary's White House-in-Waiting?

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The Georgetown mansion that Hillary Clinton is considering as a new home

In the past, departing presidents have left the White House with their wives and retired quietly to their origins — Harry and Bess to Independence, Missouri; Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson to their ranch in Texas; the Nixons and later the Reagans to California; the Carters to Plains, Georgia.

How and where a president and first lady retire gives a glimpse of character — although usually no one cares about an ex-president's character. Teddy Roosevelt, who like Bill Clinton was still a youth in his 50s when he left the White House in 1909, did a perfectly Teddy thing: He organized the most spectacular of all big-game safaris in East Africa, where some 800 native bearers carried his rifles and shaving kit and his gigantic American flag, and the ex-president mowed down wildlife, great and small, for the Museum of Natural History back in New York.

Hillary's post-White House safari

But the Clintons are still mobile and on the make — he, in an inchoate, still-to-be-determined way — and have no idea where home is. They are still on an ascendant trajectory. That would seem an insult to the prestige and ne plus ultra of the American presidency, were it not for Hillary's unprecedented situation. Senator Clinton now embarks on her own big game safari, a post-presidential, pre-presidential journey, with Bill this time in the role of native bearer, or ornamental helpmate, or West Coast adjunct. And now there's a good chance she will have a Georgetown house that is as grandiose as the caravan that Teddy Roosevelt took into the bush. Have you noticed her radiance in recent photographs — something in her face you have not seen before? It is the radiance of arrival.

Seeing the house that Hillary Clinton is considering — a fairytale-pointy, creamy Queen Anne pile on O Street that I passed ten thousand times when I was a child — I find that I am obscurely offended. I feel a stab of nostalgia. Georgetown is the only place where I am instinctively at home, even though I have been away for many years. I also feel irrationally possessive about Georgetown, having grown up there — when it was quaint and a lot cheaper, when working-class whites and blacks lived side by side with people from the State Department or the CIA, and a sprinkling of old money. We lived first in a redbrick house on R Street, across from Dumbarton Oaks, and then on N Street on the other side of Wisconsin Avenue, near 34th. Neither house cost a fraction of what Hillary will pay.

A place to reinvent yourself

But there is no reason for a native to be offended. Hillary's story fits perfectly into Georgetown; it might have been imagined by Gore Vidal in one of his Washington novels, although Henry James would have done a better job on Hillary's complexities.

For all of its monuments and marble and Gilbert Stuarts, most of Washington does not resonate; it is, even now, too new and prefab and utilitarian and somehow raw (as political power is raw, as a change of administrations has its matter-of-fact brutality). But Georgetown, tucked to the side of all that, to the west of the rawness, has its trees and old brick row houses, with Montrose Park to the north and the C & O canal and the Potomac to the south, and a certain embowered resonance that suggests the secrets and traditions of power. Its axes, M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, have gone noisy and commercial, and an awful Laura Ashley/Ralph Lauren gentrification has crept in everywhere. But Georgetown still has intimacy, beauty, poignancy.

Which is why Hillary Clinton is forced to pay 4 or 5 million dollars for the place on O Street. The oldest American story: When your own past seems a little raw and even, at times, humiliating, you buy yourself a fancier one. After a while, no one will remember what went before.