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He's finally going back to where his critics think he should have stayed all along. The other side of the tracks.

Bill Clinton sees in his saunter down 125th Street the perfect salve for post-presidential wounds. The former president was in his element up in Harlem the other day, the people grasping for a touch of his sleeve. Finally and for a moment, Clinton put a nice symbolic spin on the disastrous start to his private life.

Harlem thrills at the chance to take Clinton in. It would be the community's triumph. But so is the opposite true.

Metaphorically, the Washington and media elite could not have brought the overpriced-office fable to a better end if they'd scripted it themselves. They've put Clinton in what they see as his proper place: at the bottom of the heap.

The flap over Clinton's initial decision to rent a penthouse office in midtown Manhattan wasn't really about cost. No similar controversy arose in 1989, when outgoing president Ronald Reagan rejected an offer to move into a federal office building in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. Reagan opted for a suite in a pink-marble luxury skyscraper, his corner office commanding a spectacular view of the Pacific. It was then, and now will continue to be, the most expensive ex-presidential office ever.

No. The trouble with Clinton's midtown digs wasn't the price tag. That was mostly taken care of by the ex-president's offer to have his private foundation pick up a chunk of the tab. Trouble was, the establishment didn't think he deserved it.

This upturned nose always has sniffed at Clinton. His up-by-the-bootstraps story of overcoming a dysfunctional family life lived precariously near the bottom never acquired the glossy sheen of triumph the press has given biographies of other presidents who rose from nothing. Clinton was just trailer trash.

The assessment had nothing, in the beginning, do with his behavior in office.

Before he won the presidency, he and Al Gore were ridiculed as the "Double-Bubba ticket," never mind their trove of Ivy League degrees.

The Clintons were in office seven months when arbiters of the town's social niceties sneered that the newcomers had yet to stage a state dinner. The festivities had glittered during the Reagan-Bush era, and the city -- the white part of it, anyway -- worried aloud about having to put its sequins in storage.

"The Clintons have a lot of friends and a lot of personal dinners. It's all 'come on over,' very informal," doyenne Letitia Baldrige sniffed to the Los Angeles Times. "Some of it very last-minute."

President George W. Bush's menu of hot dogs and hamburgers for a recent dinner with the Kennedys is seen as charming hominess. Clinton's taste for McDonald's is derided as mass-market crass.

The Clintons were damned for being lowbrow. They were damned for hob-nobbing with Hollywood glitterati and trying to pass as highbrow. In the lens through which the press saw presidential vacations, it was infinitely more appropriate to own an oceanfront family estate than to borrow a summer house from friends.

Why, this president even had a mother who liked the ponies! A mother who, when she visited her son in Washington, didn't try to conceal an afternoon at the track. How very, ahem, unusual.

The contempt reached its apogee during the Lewinsky mess, when Sally Quinn, writing in the Washington Post, explored the unnerving question weighing on the minds of those invited to her dinner parties: How in the world could the rest of the country dismiss the sex scandal, when Washington insiders were aghast? The headline summed it up nicely: Not in my back yard.

Well, now he's safely in Harlem, or will be whenever the mayor decides to end his latest bout of petulance. And you can only conclude, if you are a card-carrying member of the establishment, that he is exactly where he belongs.

They have, a friend said, always treated Clinton like a black man. No matter how far he'd risen, how hard he worked, how lasting or beneficial his accomplishments, his transgressions -- real and fabricated -- required a brutal whipping and public humiliation. And, of course, that he be taken down a peg.


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