My neighbors, the Clintons

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They are WAG country’s ultimate power couple: He, former president of the United States and governor of Arkansas. She, former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady. They, with daughter Chelsea, the principal players in The Clinton Foundation. And thanks to Chelsea and husband Marc Mezvinsky, they’ve added a new title – grandparents of baby Charlotte.

However, there is one more title that those of us in Chappaqua are quite fond of – neighbors.

Fifteen years ago this month, President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton made Chappaqua their home. Over the years they have become part of the fabric of the community and I have had the pleasure of talking with them and observing them around town.

I met both President and Secretary Clinton in 2001. On a snowy January Sunday, the day after George W. Bush’s first inauguration, President Clinton was at Lange’s Little Store & Delicatessen at the top of King Street. It was an unforgettable moment to meet the former leader of the free world. He was warm and welcoming as he reached out to shake my hand, and we had an easy conversation about a book I had sent to him at the behest of one of his deputy secretaries of education, who had been colleague of mine in White Plains.

I first met Secretary Clinton at Starbucks, a place in town you are more likely to see President Clinton. I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on current issues that interested the then-Senator. Then when I saw Secretary Clinton for the first time after she was appointed secretary of state, I asked her what I should call her now. With a smile she said, “Call me Hillary.” (Of course, out of respect, I would never do that.)

One of my favorite encounters was with my dog, Maggie Mae, in March of 2009. The Clintons were walking on my street and I asked if Maggie could meet them. As I lifted Maggie, Secretary Clinton took her from my arms and asked about her breed (Toy Parti Poodle) as she was thinking of getting a small dog. Then she handed her over to President Clinton, and Maggie snuggled up to the former President, who had some questions about Maggie’s routines. Secretary Clinton fell in love with Maggie and by the spring she had her own black-and-white Toy Poodle, Tally, a definite Maggie Mae look-alike.

Vicki Lange Bergstrom, whose father owns Lange’s, says when President Clinton is around, he comes in for coffee and some heart-healthy food. “He is very approachable,” Bergstrom says. “I first met him at the firehouse the night of President (George W.) Bush’s (first) inauguration. He stopped by to thank all the firefighters for their support.”

This summer Lange’s displayed a photo of President Clinton making his own donation next to a giant jar for the Wounded Warrior Project.

You never know when and where you might see the Clintons. Imagine the surprise at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua when the Clintons arrived for the evening Rosh Hashana service that followed 9/11. Steve Adler, president of the congregation at that time, says he saw this as a way for them to connect with the community.

“The rabbi, Alan Fuchs, invited them up to the bima (the raised platform used for the Torah readings) for the closing song, ‘America, the Beautiful’ and they didn’t miss a word,” says Adler. “They stayed for quite a while after to talk to the congregants.”

One day you may hear that President Clinton is in Haiti on a mission for The Clinton Foundation, the next you might see him walking his dogs on your street. Or like Lauren Karr discovered, he may watch your child play ball.

“My son was playing in the New Castle Recreational league baseball playoffs, on the Town Rec field when I noticed a tall man with white hair in casual clothes, walking a dog on South Greeley Avenue. Several feet behind him walked a man (Secret Service)….He stopped for a while by the fence to watch the boys play. I thought how cool, baseball and the president, such an American moment.”

You can count on seeing President Clinton in town on Christmas Eve doing last minute shopping and distributing cookies and brownies to the many merchants he and his wife patronize.

Despite her busy, globetrotting schedule, Secretary Clinton always makes time to march in our annual Memorial Day Parade.

“Even though she was a senator, Secretary Clinton asked the elected officials if it was OK for her to march with them,” says Barbara Gerrard, former Town of New Castle supervisor. Secretary Clinton was first asked to march by the Girl Scouts. “She was not presumptuous.” Gerrard says the Clintons have demonstrated how much they want to become part of the community. “She is always very gracious with her time in coming to our swearing-in ceremonies. And President Clinton has come, too.” Gerrard adds, “The sincerity of both Clintons shows through all the time.”

The Clintons have both spoken in the Chappaqua public schools and have been keynote speakers, addressing the graduates of the Chappaqua Summer Scholarship Program, a three-year program to prepare high achieving, low-income students for the rigors of college and broaden their horizons. They have been loyal to our town by including Chappaqua on their book tours, supporting local bookstores and our library. (My story on the most recent signing, for Secretary Clinton’s “Hard Choices,” was featured in WAG’s August “Power Play” issue.)

They have lived up to the Gospel passage that was a favorite of President John F. Kennedy, whom they both so admired: “To him to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

Crabtree’s Kittle House seems to be a favorite place for the Clintons. John Crabtree, who is one of the owners, spoke about a recent visit the Clintons paid on their way home from seeing Chelsea, Marc and baby Charlotte: “They were so happy and bursting with joy.”

Frequently, the Clintons enjoy dinner and watch the Fourth of July fireworks there in Amy’s Garden. “Kids will come up to them, and they are happy to chat,” says Crabtree, who is sensitive of their privacy. When the Clintons are there for a family celebration, he keeps the enthusiastic fellow diners who would love to meet them at bay until the Clintons are ready to leave:

“Sometimes they surprise me. One day, President Clinton was dining with (former) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. When a wedding party downstairs below spied the two in the window of the dining room, President Clinton decided to come out to greet them.” Crabtree says that the President has hosted former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame at the Kittle House. One evening, the Clintons asked Crabtree to join them for a drink in the Tap Room as they awaited a guest – former Disney CEO (and Mount Kisco native) Michael Eisner.

“We had a natural and comfortable conversation. Their interaction was like my parents.” Crabtree was also very moved by their paying respects at the wake for his wife, Amy, who passed away in 2009.

Just as it didn’t surprise me that they chose to live in Chappaqua, it didn’t surprise me that they chose to remain here after finding a more spacious property in Bedford Hills. “This is our home,” they have said.

And as long as they continue to call it that, we neighbors won’t mind if they return to a bigger white house – for a while.

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