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Populist, Shmopulist!

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 1998

  Style Showcase


EAST HAMPTON, N.Y.,—There was a time when the idea of Bill Clinton spending his weekend in the Hamptons would have sent his political handlers into fainting spells. Somewhere along the way, though, the president apparently decided he was done worrying about all that.

If Clinton wants to hang out with celebrities, he'll hang without embarrassment. If the Democratic Party needs him to shake loose a bundle of campaign money, he'll shake without apology. And if he thinks the Constitution is an inconvenient impediment to his desire to seek a third term, he'll say so with pride.

"If it weren't for the 22nd Amendment, I'd give the American people another chance to elect or defeat me because I believe in what we're doing," Clinton said to laughter and exuberant applause at a fund-raiser Saturday night.

Back in Washington, people may be fixated on precisely how Clinton will slog his way to the end of a second term, never mind a third. Here in the Hamptons, Clinton immersed himself in a sun-soaked, cash-flush, celebrity-studded whirl that seemed to uncork the bubblier side of his personality.

Once, his aides cringed when Clinton was seen with the rich and famous for fear it would scuff his populist image. Here, he and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were the guests of film titan Steven Spielberg and actress Kate Capshaw and, over the course of 48 hours, mingled with the likes of screen stars Julie Andrews, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger and Chevy Chase, rockers Hootie and the Blowfish, publishing mogul Mort Zuckerman, fashion designer Vera Wang and pop singer Billy Joel.

For a while, it looked as if the weekend would pass without a chance to see Joel's ex-wife, model Christie Brinkley. But on Saturday afternoon, the presidential motorcade jerked to a halt. There was Brinkley walking with her month-old baby, Sailor Lee. And there was Clinton -- springing from his limo to say hello and pose for a picture on the side of a road.

The Hamptons were an inhibition-free zone in other ways. All through the Democratic fund-raising furor of 1997, the White House brooded each time it had to balance the need to raise contributions with the attendant bad publicity that followed.

But a sex scandal can do wonders to chase away a money scandal. Clinton's three fund-raisers here this weekend -- with a_total projected take of $1.3 million -- were the 56th, 57th and 58th events he attended to raise money for Democrats in 1998, according to CBS radio reporter Mark Knoller, who is famous for his meticulous records of Clinton's schedule. All told, the president has raised some $27 million or more in 1998.

If Clinton is not reticent about fund-raising, he did -- at least for the weekend -- seem to cast away any past sensitivity about being caught on the wrong side of the culture wars. With Republicans lately stepping up their attacks on homosexuality, Clinton attended a fund-raiser at the home of orchestra founder Jonathan Sheffer and Christopher Barley, a doctor, and listened appreciatively as Sheffer said that gays can particularly sympathize with the political assaults that Clinton has had to endure of late.

"Gay men and lesbians know what it's like to be vilified, to be stereotyped, to be persecuted," Sheffer said. "I want you to know that today you are among friends."

As it happened, both the president and first lady made only what seemed oblique references to certain subjects that have been recently in the news. They contended that the president's recent problems are because his enemies know that his policies are changing the nation.

"You know sometimes when you try to effect that kind of transformation, you know you're going to provoke a reaction," the president said. "I didn't dream it would be quite as profound as it has been -- this reaction."

Hillary Clinton said Republican attacks seemed to be part of a deliberate strategy to depress voter turnout by convincing people that politics is "all so nasty and yucky [that] I don't want to be a part of it."

The weekend had fund-raisers for both the classes and the masses. The most upper-end affair was Friday night at investment banker Bruce Wasserstein's house, and couples were expected to contribute $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee. The populist event was a gathering of the "Saxophone Club" -- the DNC's fund-raising program aimed at young professionals -- who for $250 convened at Baldwin and Basinger's horse farm under a tent that was large enough to have held a rodeo. The crowd was put in a buoyant mood by Hootie and the Blowfish. And the young partisans saved some of their strongest cheers for the first lady.

"One Democrat stands alone in her contribution to the president's success," Baldwin said, calling Hillary Clinton "the most effective first lady in the history of the United States."

"More than anything, we believe in Hillary Clinton and President Clinton," Baldwin said. "With all our hearts we believe in them."

Believing in them, however, is not exactly the same as believing them. Even as they cheered the Clintons, some contributors said the tent was abuzz with salacious comments about the Monica Lewinsky controversy.

Steve Hovagimyan, a 31-year-old corporate planner from Manhattan, said his jaw dropped when Clinton told the crowd about a young girl he had met earlier in the day. "Bad choice of a story," he said. "Stay away from that topic."

"There were a lot of wisecracks," said his date, 28-year-old business strategist Jennifer Underwood. "But there was clearly a lot of support."

While the Lewinsky controversy reaches a boil in Washington, among this crowd its seriousness seems to have long since dissipated in a roar of ribald merriment.

Estate planner Mindy Kobrin, 27, and her date, 31-year-old Mark Belford, who works on Wall Street, were walking back to their car talking about how they admired the Clintons for seeming to stay so upbeat during what must be a period of excruciating embarrassment.

Then, he cracked, "Everyone was careful not to wear a blue dress."

"No one wore a beret," she chortled.

The fund-raising events were closed to the press, with the exception of a pool of reporters who were allowed in for part of the program and reported back to colleagues. (Most major Republican National Committee fund-raisers are completely closed to the media.)

After the Baldwin-Basinger fund-raiser in Amagansett, the Clintons repaired with that couple for dinner at the nearby Turtle Crossing restaurant. The party included Chase, Spielberg and Zuckerman.

For the Clintons, the weekend may have been a sojourn, but for the Hamptons it was regarded as a major sociological event. Clinton said he had been told he was the first president to come here since William McKinley. And some residents said his presence did seem to be symbolic of how a place that was once known for understated prosperity now shouts wealth and fame in emphatic tones.

"Hamptons Heat Wave," said the current issue of New York magazine, which features a caricature of Clinton lounging in the surf with a varied assortment of Hamptons denizens: rapper Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, cosmetics heir Ron Perelman, Spielberg and entertaining dominatrix Martha Stewart.

Robin Liftman, who works in the women's apparel industry, has been making the two-hour-plus drive to the Hamptons on weekends for years. "Three or four years ago, you never would have had all the West Coast, L.A.-type people coming here," she said. "It adds an excitement to the area."

She was speaking outside Sotheby's in Southampton, whose storefront featured houses for sale. Offerings included a "charming cottage" whose price had recently been reduced to $535,000. And a five-acre oceanfront spread with an 8,500-square-foot house, an "oversized heated granite pool," hot tub and tennis court: Yours for $13.5 million.

There had been some speculation that the Hamptons were so inured to famous people that Clinton's visit would inspire only shrugs. Not so. Though the predicted traffic jams never materialized, Clinton's motorcade produced jammed sidewalks and craned necks when it zoomed by.

Parade columnist James Brady, who lives in East Hampton and has written a novel set in the area, explained: "We're used to celebrities, but not presidents. Sure, if the president's driving by, I'll come out and gawk."

But some people were eager to wave goodbye. Clinton may not have realized it, but his whirlwind visit rubbed up against ancient resentments that year-round residents have against the summer people. Saturday night at the East Hampton Bowl Family Fun Center ("Cosmic Bowling to be experienced," says the sign), a group of beer drinkers thought Clinton was straying from his roots.

"He hangs out with the upper-class and he lives the upper-class lifestyle," said Danny, 27, who works in a grocery store but refused to give his last name. "He's not representing the middle class like he said he would."

His friend, 24-year-old Rob Waldron, was not so contemptuous. But he said Clinton had not really seen the Hamptons. "He should have walked around town a bit and met the people who really live here," he said, "instead of spending all his time with the stars."

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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