The rain pummels the masses. They're outside, huddled on the sidewalk. They've got their overnight blankets and umbrellas and picnic chairs and nostalgia. They're ready to pontificate for the sound-bite-hungry TV crews, ready to tell how much better it was back then, how much they miss their Bill, still.
Former president Bill Clinton soon will arrive at the Barnes & Noble store in Rockefeller Center to sign his new book, turning midtown Manhattan into another installment of what the Daily News has dubbed the "Bubba Bombardment." The line of book-seekers snakes from Fifth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas, from 48th Street to 49th. Close to 2,000 people have queued up.
By all indications -- Alfred A. Knopf has printed 1.5 million copies of "My Life" and has reserved press time for reprinting -- the book-buying public seems ready for 957 pages of Clinton reflecting on Clinton, as well as on Arkansas, the White House, his presidency, his many detractors and, of course, the Big She, Monica Lewinsky.
In the store, awaiting his arrival, we are wedged between "Drama" (a title, "Forbidden Acts," catches the eye) and "Fiction." "Mystery" is a few aisles away. Such Clinton-era themes.
The bookstore bristles with anticipation. He is late. He is Clinton. But then a cheer arises from outside in the rain, near the sign that says "Barnes & Noble Welcomes President Clinton."
And then there he is, bathed in the flashes from cameras, the sound of shutters clicking and cheers from inside the bookstore, too. He's got that aw-shucks mouth-gaping expression, as if this moment is something new, something fresh, though he's had this kind of moment thousands of times.
"I'm glad it's finally happening," the former president says. "I've been living with this for two years."
The thought occurs: And now we shall have to live with it, too.
It's not just a book. It's not just a book launch. It seems like something more, something in the category of burnishing the image, of rehabilitating the legacy, of Clinton getting another go at his love affair with the spotlight, especially in these times when Democrats are deeply disillusioned with the Bush White House. It's more than a book. It's a kind of rallying point.
Of course, the cultural and ideological wars that surrounded the Clinton years have broken out again. The old cleavages are exposed. It may be unseemly, even just plain old, but lo and behold the debates are keeping Clinton all over the airwaves, which will no doubt help sell his book.
It started with Clinton's speech a few weeks ago to the American Booksellers Association convention in Chicago. C-SPAN carried it live and 3,000 people were in the audience. And we've had the "60 Minutes," Time magazine and USA Today interviews. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" taped a segment with him Monday that aired Tuesday to push the book. And Knopf threw a book party for him Monday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Clinton friend and lawyer Robert Barnett, holding forth in the press pit during the Barnes & Noble spectacle, calls it the "mother and father of all rollouts." There'll even be an AOL and Infinity Broadcasting town hall meeting Thursday, live.
There are so many angles to play. The dueling Clinton biographies, his and hers: Who will outsell the other? The Clinton score-settling: Does Ken Starr even care? The unkind reviews: ooouch!
The most prominent review so far came in a rare front-pager in the New York Times on Sunday, which, to quote but a snippet, called the book "sloppy, self-indulgent, and often eye-crossingly dull."
The Associated Press compared the book to "being locked in a small room with a very gregarious man who insists on reading his entire appointment book, day by day, beginning in 1946."
Barnett pooh-poohs the power of these reviews.
"This is not a review-driven book," he says.
And certainly the bad-mouthing hasn't dampened the affection felt by those folks willing to spend the night on the sidewalk to get a copy of his book and his signature and even the briefest encounter with history (or at least a collector's item that could be worth money one day).
There's an intense nostalgia, a certain faraway look in the eye, that comes over the folks in line as they talk about the former president.
Lee Lord, a Manhattanite from Chelsea, lists what he'd like to say to Clinton, should time permit. "I'd say to him that, 'You were one of the best [presidents] in my lifetime, and I'm 58 years old. The impeachment was totally partisan. Great statesman,' which Bush is not."
Joanna Sosa, 32, drove in from Bloomsburg, Pa., with her dad. They got a hotel room on arrival at 4 p.m. Monday but barely used it when they realized people were beginning to line up on the street to spend the night.
Her whole political life so far has been tied to Clinton, she says.
"He was the first president I voted for, the first election," says Sosa, a college math instructor.
Though Clinton is not a candidate this time, Sosa likened her trip to Manhattan to her trip in 1992, when she saw Clinton on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania.
"He was doing his bus tour," she says. "I went to a truck stop."
Monica Lewinsky is an afterthought to many of those who have come to meet Clinton. The mere mention of her, in fact, brings ugly retorts.
"Who is Monica? She's just a speck in the sand."
That's Maxine George, 49, a feisty human services executive from Schenectady, who is, clearly, defensive about her president (err, former president).
"He did it, yeah. A lot of other men do it," she says dismissively.
She drove 31/2 hours to be here for this day. She parked herself in a picnic chair on the sidewalk overnight and cleaned up in a nearby McDonald's this morning.
"I think he's one of the most brilliant minds of our time," George says.
Out there in the rain, one can easily wonder: What the heck is going on? Is this really important, or just another flash in our media-spectacle-driven culture? Perhaps that is cynical. Perhaps that doesn't take into account what these people on the street will actually feel after they've met the man, received his book and walked away.
"That's his signature!" says Stephen Jue, 20, who seemed awed as he studied the two words: "Bill Clinton."
Sara Caughman, a 19-year-old from Columbia, S.C., who's interning here in the fashion industry this summer, bought a copy as a "belated Father's Day present."
Jue and Caughman were part of a 1 a.m. group, meaning those who arrived at the same time and turned the wait into a slumber party. They shared part of the night with Mary Milton of Brooklyn and her sister, Deborah Santiago, of Long Island. The sisters had fried up some chicken and made ham-and-cheese sandwiches. They had plenty to share with the folks in line with them.
"He's one of my favorite people," says Milton, all giggly after receiving her signed book. "He said, 'God bless you and thanks for waiting.' "
Elizabeth Collings is quivering. Her lips are trembling. Clinton has had quite an impact on the 50-year-old from Forest Hills. She's a true believer.
"He's done a lot for the economy while he was president. And he tried to forge peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In terms of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that's his prerogative. Everybody has their shortcomings, and he's a human being. And so he said he was sorry, and I took him at his word. And I don't think about Monica Lewinsky anymore.
"I saluted him, and he saluted me back, and he had a great big smile."