Bill Clinton's true friends

Once again, he learns they're in Harlem, not on Wall Street.

Published February 15, 2001 8:12PM (EST)

If Bill Clinton was still fuzzy about who his true friends are, it was made glaringly obvious this week. Note to the ex-POTUS: They're in Harlem, not on Wall Street. While financial powerhouses Morgan Stanley and UBS Warburg, owners of PaineWebber, were publicly humiliating the former president by declaring he was too soiled a figure to address their esteemed conferences, the people of Harlem were warmly offering the beleaguered Washington retiree safe haven on 125th Street.

How fleeting are friendships in the world of high finance! Just weeks ago, President Clinton was being hailed for leading the country to new heights of prosperity, in the process making the distinguished moneygrubbers at the helms of Morgan Stanley and UBS Warburg even filthier rich than they were under Republican rule. Today, however, the captains of finance are crossing the street when they see Clinton ambling their way. This Marc Rich business is simply too unsavory, you know. Never mind that among the top-hat-and-tails crowd who lobbied Clinton on behalf of Rich was none other than Pierre de Weck, one of UBS Warburg's crowned European princes. The Arkansas hick might have been useful when he was in the White House, but today Wall Street is not returning Clinton's calls.

Which is all for the best. It's doubtful Pierre de Weck would feel comfortable dining with the former president at the Creole cuisine stand in his new neighborhood.

And perhaps it's time for Clinton to forget his rich "friends" too. They keep getting him in trouble and they're never around to bail him out. Besides, they're not the ones who need to hear his message right now. While the former president has been busy writing speeches for elite Wall Street luncheons, he is getting his ass kicked in the raucous forum of electronic media -- the cable stations, radio shows and Web sites that now shape American public opinion. Instead of breaking bread with the swells, he should be breaking heads on the Internet.

He also should be thinking more about those who always, unfailingly, have his back, no matter what stupid stunt he has just pulled, from Monica to Marc Rich. That would, first and foremost, be his long-suffering brothers and sisters in the African-American community. If Clinton is looking for a Jimmy Carter-like way to be of service in his post-presidency, he could devote himself to no cause more important than voting reform. Let him use his new base in Harlem, if Il Giuliani finally allows him to open shop there, to crusade against the flaws and abuses that marred the last presidential election. If the former president still has some friends in the castles of finance, perhaps they could be persuaded to contribute to his new cause, so that no poor precinct ever again has to use faulty voting machines.

After all, he came through for them, at great political cost, for Rich. Now it's their turn to repay the favor, for the poor.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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