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Harlem Welcomes Bill Clinton - 'The Last Elected President'
Leah Faerstein

"New York is the navel of the world," claimed the letters that brought me from across the ocean - and I never had reason to doubt it! Today, Harlem was the center of New York, and I felt the resistance movement in my bones.

Some background to today's events. In the beginning of this year, as the Big Dog was looking for office space in Manhattan, the media barons were fixing to blame him for the outrageous prices/rentals of NYC real estate. As he told the story today: "I called Charlie Rangel and asked him if he can find me some office space in Harlem. 'Did the sun come up this morning,' Rangel asked. 24 hours later we were here."

It turned out that the space chosen had a lease for a city agency on it. "We knew it" the media barons screamed! "It was just a stunt!" He did not want to do it anyway!" Rude Giuliani contemplated chicanery: "We'll see if this is feasible," but had to concentrate on his own GOP family values (!). The NY Post was still begrudging the "sprawling space with breathtaking Manhattan views in Harlem," trying to get us outraged over the rent.

Meanwhile, people in Harlem were baking cakes, tuning instruments, rehearsing bands... It was a sunny, breezy morning when thousands of people filled the plaza in front of the state building where a stage was dominated by a huge banner "Harlem Welcomes President Clinton."

Shrill voices were there too. About 12 Black Panthers were chanting something in unison as directed by their...commander? He had a uniform and a cap that made him look like a banana republic dictator. A few other voices were ranting about rents. Someone was giving out beautiful "Harlem Welcomes President Clinton" buttons (picture and all) - I was glad to see them later all over town!

I saw Robyn Sue up on a fence - I recognized her by her "Repeal the 22nd amendment" sign. It earned her an interview from Chicago Sun. I managed to get a button for her by telling someone that she came all the way from Boston.

When Big Dog came, the cheers were unending. I think they heard them down in Wall Street!

Some great jazz started by 11, and after that many speeches. Cicely Tyson said that Big Dog was fitting that Langston Hughes line: "I play it cool and dig all jive, and that's the reason I stay alive." Charles Schumer is no longer outraged by the Rich pardons. He now called Big Dog the greatest president. "We all miss you, Mr. President," he said. "Only now, in NY, in Harlem, we miss you less, because you are here." Pataki also jumped on the bandwagon and sent a secretary with a proclamation document: "July 30 shall be henceforth be known in NYS as William Jefferson Clinton Day in Harlem" in recognition off all the good things he did. Carl McCall promised that once he gets his new job - as Governor of New York - he'll open an office right next door to Clinton.

In between the speeches, more music. The Harlem Boys Choir sang "Take the A train." The little violinists featured in "Music of the Heart" started playing "We Shall Overcome." Big Dog got up - and all the others followed suit. He started singing it - he knew the words and all - and soon the thousands of people in the plaza (and across the street) were singing with him. It was at that precise point I sensed the power, the historical time and place where everything would turn around.

Charlie Rangel was saying: "Sometimes you know someone by his friends, sometimes by his enemies. There was no one who tried to kick this man down that did not try to kick us down first!" I felt the ground shake with the crowd reaction. He also addressed the hecklers: "I'd like to thank my Republican friends in Congress for sponsoring this group."

He then introduced Bill as "The last President elected in this country," adding that "If we'd have our way, we'd re-elect him all over again!" The crowd was positively jumping!

Big Dog started by saying: "Now I am home." He recounted his dream as a young musician to play at the Apollo one day with the greats. "I did not play at the Apollo, but I ate at Sylvia" he joked, adding: "I ain't dead yet, I may still do it some day."

He explained the absence of Hillary and Chelsea - his mother in law had surgery this morning. "But just before I came here, she called to make sure I'd say all the right things so, if someone wants to drop a good report card on me..."

He addressed the hecklers too: "I see a sign there: 'What did you do for Harlem as President?' That's a fair question. First, I promised I would turn the economy around, then I made sure I invested about $600,000,000 in Harlem so I think I did keep my promises to Harlem."

He also joked about strange things he now hears at the airport ("Didn't you use to be Bill Clinton?") and he promised to be a good neighbor. "You voted for me in 92 and 96 and for Hillary in 2000 and you were there for me in good times and bad times and I promise to try to do the same for you."

"Stand By Me" was the closing song - he sang again, words and all and by then he was so into it he was jumping around like a little boy. As the Secret Service was ushering him away towards the back, he swerved again towards us and I got to shake his hand again.

I am now reveling in the feeling that the resistance is alive and well and I had just come from the heart of it! As he leaves, the clouds take over. The beautiful day is no more. Cheney is coming to New Jersey and the weather responds accordingly.

Still, 100 blocks away from Harlem, I see three of those buttons in my neighborhood. The flame is spreading!

July 30, 2001