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Reporter’s notebook: Citizen Clinton

NBC’s Pat Dawson writes of his observations as Bill Clinton returned to New York, his new home, Saturday.
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

Like all of the other homes on Old House Lane, the large white colonial was blanketed in several inches of new snow. It was a picturesque welcome for the new family in town. Actually, only the dad was really new to the house. But there was no evidence the new resident was out shoveling his driveway.

In fact, on the first day of the rest of his life, the newest resident of Chappaqua, N.Y. slept in.

For those who were afraid Bill Clinton would never leave the stage, Sunday in the small suburban town was a revelation. It was also a vivid lesson in just how swift and sudden the transfer of power can be.

Twenty-four hours removed from the most powerful job on earth, Clinton was not much more than the newly-unemployed guy who just moved into the neighborhood. Well, okay, not many unemployed guys have a Secret Service detail to accompany them to the deli for an egg salad sandwich, nor a couple of television cameras waiting for him at the store. But all things in this world are relative, none so much as status, and as the former president tried to get used to the feel of being more “former” and less presidential, so did everybody around him.

Watching Citizen Clinton among his neighbors at the delicatessen reminded a reporter of the last time this most self-possessed of modern politicians had been so approachable. It was late in the autumn of 1991, and the governor of Arkansas was just trying to make inroads in his run for the Democratic nomination. Now he was just the guy getting out of the big gray SUV. Of course, he was happy to see the small crowd of his suburban neighbors. And he clearly delighted in the attention. These were after all, friendly, congratulatory folks. They liked him. A few — probably a quartet, even started a chant: “Eight more years!”

There will be no more years at the seat of power for former President, but he was plainly enjoying his Fanfare for the Common Man.

“It’s nice to go when some people still want you to stay.”

He looked sincere when he said it, but searching the face for a clue, one wondered, could this be the same guy who never left a hand un-shook, who always lingered for a few more words, who found the spotlight with the artful cunning of an only child?

“Isn’t there any other news in New York?” Clinton wondered aloud to the small band of reporters in front of Lange’s Restaurant and Deli.

The question seemed tentative, almost plaintive, encouraging a reply that he was still news, this middle-aged guy in jeans and a yellow fleece pullover.

Even under attack, President Bill Clinton always seemed a natural at the role. He was born to play the part, smoother and more comfortable in any circumstance than even Ronald Reagan, an actor in real-life. Watching him play Chief Executive was like watching Bogart play a tough guy, or Gary Cooper a quiet hero. Dead on.

But on the morning after Inauguration Day, the consummate public figure was a bit at sea, not really sure of what his part was any more.

Nobody was buying the aw-shucks, I’m just a regular, suburban family man like you folks. And there is something difficult for rebellious baby-boomers in taking on the role of elder statesman. This is, after all, the generation that made the Who’s “I hope I die before I get old,” a defiant cultural statement. (Though a lot of us are grateful we didn’t go to the mat on that defining revolutionary moment.)

Finally, anyone who believes Citizen Bill will be content as second banana to the junior Senator from New York just hasn’t been paying attention.

So what will he do? What role now?

He doesn’t know.

It was obvious to observers Saturday afternoon at Kennedy Airport. The big crowd; the triumphant welcome home. The big plane that used to be his Air Force One. (As Special Air Mission 28000, somehow it doesn’t have the same ring.)

He spoke for 55 seconds. Some of us in the huge TWA hangar thought it must have been an imposter, a Bill-impersonator trotted out for some security reason. This is a guy who can do 55 seconds just saying hello to you. 55 minutes was a comfortable performance. An hour and 55 minutes and only the audience was tired.

It was the first sign he didn’t know his new lines.

And Sunday, though he worked the small crowd at the deli like the old Bill Clinton, he seemed unsure of an exit line. And was it exit stage right or stage left?

What will he do? Well, there’s talk of a book deal. Maybe even a five million dollar advance, which is a lot of money. Until you consider that Hillary got eight million.

But then, she is a U.S. senator.