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A warm welcome for Clinton

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NEW YORK — Former President Bill Clinton officially kicked off his post-presidency in Harlem on Monday in front of an adoring audience that gave no acknowledgment he was anything but the country's current leader.

Ferried a block by sport utility vehicle from his new office on West 125th Street, Clinton received a hero's welcome at the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell state office building, where the crowd of 2,000 or so had waited as long as two hours.

Appearing to forget Clinton's post-presidential travails and the fact that Harlem was his second choice in his search for office space, most of the crowd clearly came to celebrate the arrival of a new neighbor whose move seemed to affirm Harlem's resurrection.

"We Love Bill!" the crowd chanted, drowning out the calls of "slave master" and "go home" from a group of black separatists and other foes of gentrification.

Clinton clearly relished the event, as much a coming out for his new life as for the homecoming it was repeatedly proclaimed. At one point he appeared to be literally bouncing with joy. But he also acknowledged the concern that hung in the air like a discordant note: that his arrival, and the economic jolt it would most likely bring to Harlem, could be threatening as well.

"I want to make sure I'm a good neighbor in Harlem," Clinton said. "I'm glad property values are going up, but I don't want small-business people to be run out because I'm coming in."

Clinton was joined by a who's who of the state's Democratic officials and a few of his former Cabinet members — but not the city's Republican mayor. And he was hailed, essentially, as the chief.

"This is the last president we ever had that was elected," Rep. Charles Rangel said in a not-so-veiled reference to the contested election of President George W. Bush, "and if we had our way he would be re-elected."

In a speech, Clinton told the crowd that his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Washington because her mother had surgery on Monday, had called just before he came out to make sure he would say and do the right things.

"Somebody drop her a note and tell her I gave a good account of myself today," he said to loud laughter.

And he joked that he had dreamed of playing music at the Apollo Theater, and said: "I ain't dead yet — I may play there yet before it's over."

Since leaving office in January, Clinton has struggled to construct his civilian identity. He spent weeks fending off questions about his last-minute pardons, and he has given dozens of well-paid speeches as part of an effort to pay off his legal bills.

He is close to signing a deal to write his memoirs, and he plans to raise money for the Democratic Party and for his presidential library in Arkansas.

He has kept a low profile, but he shed it Monday. He took the opportunity to outline his public service priorities for the coming months.

He said he wanted to promote economic opportunity here and abroad; to help the fight against AIDS, globally and locally; and "to try to help people make a community from the great diversity we've got," whether in Harlem or around the world.

Saying that a sign in the audience that asked what he had done for Harlem as president posed a "a fair question," he defended his administration's record, citing an economic boom, private investment lured by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and declines in unemployment and welfare rolls.

"I think I kept my word to Harlem," he said.

Of his new neighborhood, he said: "Harlem always struck me as a place that was human and alive, where there was a rhythm to life and a song in the heart, where no matter how bad it was people held up their heads and went on, and where when things got good, people were grateful and cared about their neighbors."

Harlem was certainly human and alive on Monday. Well before Clinton arrived, the plaza had already morphed into a town square of sorts. Wearing a black doorman's hat and uniform trimmed with red and green piping and the collar rank of a five-star general, Malik Zulu Shabazz led members of New Black Panthers for Self-Defense, themselves in black paramilitary uniforms in the black power salute — a raised clenched fist — and chants of "Harlem is ours!"

A woman yelled in response: "Harlem is ours — all of ours, and we welcome the former president."

Nearby, Rich Bartee, who wore a hat that said "The Hugmaster," was leading a group of children in chanting and singing "more hugging/less mugging/more hugging/less drugging." And every single willing Harlem resident seemed to be sharing his or her thoughts with a reporter.

Some argued among themselves — about the Panthers, about whether Clinton was good for Harlem. ("Yes" seemed to be the majority, though certainly not unanimous, opinion.) People wore buttons with Clinton's picture — with pre-presidency brown hair — and waved palm fans with Clinton's face on them.

And when the festivities finally got under way around 12:30 p.m. — an hour and a half after the event had been scheduled — they sang along, as did Clinton, to a violin version of "We Shall Overcome" and a rousing saxophone rendition of "Stand By Me."

Current and former elected officials — among them former Mayor David Dinkins, state Comptroller Carl McCall and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. — sang the praises of Clinton and Rangel, who had helped bring both the empowerment zone and Mr. Clinton to Harlem.

After Clinton finished speaking, singing and swaying he came down to press hands in the exuberant crowd, and even gave a few hugs that would have made the Hugmaster proud.

Then it was off to Sylvia's Also to meet and greet the faithful, and to eat. (Clinton did stop to make clear that he would also be spending considerable time at the Harlem YMCA.) He was then driven the half block to his office, where he spent the rest of the afternoon.

On 126th Street, the site of his building's back entrance, residents sat on their stoops and watched Secret Service agents loiter on the sidewalks, as sure a sign as the construction crews renovating nearby homes that their neighborhood would never be quite the same again.