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07.11.10

The Clintons' Misguided House Hunt

The former first family won't take well to stuffy, Republican Bedford Hills if they buy that $11 million mansion—nevermind the two local prisons. Don't go, says Lawrence Otis Graham.

I hope there's no truth to the rumor that we, in Chappaqua, New York, are about to be LeBron James'd by Bill and Hillary Clinton, supposedly about to swap their one-acre mansion on Chappaqua's Old House Lane for a grander 20-acre $10.9 million estate in Bedford Hills, New York.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of the Clintons' Homes—Past and Present

As a lifelong resident of Westchester County, I can appreciate that the outside world could hardly distinguish between these two towns and can hardly grasp why any of us folks above Interstate 684 even care where the former president and current secretary of state hang their hats.

But we do care.

For one thing, the Clintons have brought celebrity, pride and gravitas to what was once just another affluent New York suburb, often unfairly referred to as "Scarsdale North" because of its ambitious parents, Ivy League-bound children and BMW and Range Rover-lined parking lots. Once the Clintons arrived here in November 1999, trailed by TV trucks and secret service agents, people stopped confusing our fair town with that similar-sounding Martha's Vineyard town where Teddy Kennedy went off the bridge with poor Mary Jo Kopechne.

The other reason why we care is because, like the Cleveland basketball fans who (wrongly) believe they singlehandedly turned King James into a sports icon, some of us feel it was Chappaqua's great liberal Quaker history, and overwhelmingly Democratic and wealthy population, that made it possible for the first lady to launch her successful Senate campaign when she had no previous ties to New York State.

Does it make sense to leave a home five blocks from the bucolic Reader's Digest 114-acre campus to move into a house that sits on the same street as two infamous state prisons?

And while we will try to be more gracious than the Cleveland fans who angrily watched LeBron leave for Miami, some of us believe the Clintons are making a mistake moving to a rural town that, until last year, served as Westchester's last bastion of the WASP Republican elite. Having been controlled entirely by Republicans, Bedford is for the first time influenced by Democrats on the town board, the county legislature and Congress and, therefore, socially and politically safe for the Clintons.

But why that parcel on Harris Road in Bedford Hills? Does it make sense to leave a home five blocks from the bucolic Reader's Digest 114-acre campus to move into a house that sits on the same street as two infamous state prisons? The Harris Road property that the Clintons are reportedly looking at is just 11 mailboxes away from both the Taconic and Bedford Hills Correctional Facilities. The latter happens to be New York's only maximum security prison for women, best known for housing Jean Harris, the Madeira School headmistress convicted of murdering Scarsdale Diet Doctor Herman Tarnower, and Amy Fisher, the oversexed Long Island teenager who shot the wife of auto mechanic Joey Buttafuoco. The rooftop of the $11 million Harris Road mansion is as visible to a local pedestrian's eye as the glistening coils of barbed wire that loop near the yellow sign and walls down the street at the two state prisons. I can already hear the late-night talk show jokes about the newest residents to Bedford Hills…

Like others in Chappaqua, I wished that the Clintons would stay because they have contributed a great deal to this community. They've volunteered their time giving lectures at the local high school and local community center, and they have helped raise money for local charities as well as the local Democratic Party.

"President and Senator Clinton worked hard to become a part of our community," says former Town Supervisor Janet Wells, who has lived in Chappaqua for over 35 years. "But they did it without disrupting people or calling attention to themselves."

While it's true that two large black SUV's and secret service agents were always nearby, Bill and Hillary behaved like everyone else, participating in the Rotary Club's Community Day activities and getting their exercise at the Horace Greeley High School track, their sandwiches at Lange's Deli on King Street or picking out cookies and cakes at Susan Lawrence Caterers on North Greeley Avenue. Hillary, occasionally, even got her hair done at the small Santa's Hair Salon on King Street.

The Clintons demonstrated their hospitality to the Chappaqua locals from the time they first bought the house at 15 Old House Lane. While Bill was still in the White House, they invited the Chappaqua fire commissioners, town board and police officials to their holiday reception at the White House. And their first stop after leaving Washington in January 2000 was the Chappaqua Fire House where they greeted local firefighters and the town board before making the final six block trek to their new home around the corner. After Hillary won her Senate seat, she and Bill would always be in town for holidays, Memorial Day parades and more mundane swearing-in ceremonies that they didn't have to do but did anyway. "Because of Hillary's involvement with children and education," added Wells, "our Chappaqua School Foundation created an 'It Takes a Village Award' that first honored her, and has since honored many others at our annual fundraisers."

So, given all the good that the Clintons have done for our community—and vice versa—I try to make sense of this decision. I get that this family (as well as the Secret Service) needs more land and greater privacy than the Old House Lane property can provide. (To this day, the public can drive within 60 feet of the front steps of the small Clinton mansion.) But why leave Chappaqua altogether? There are at least four $5 million plus homes in Chappaqua currently on the market that could offer more presidential-type privacy. One of them, a $27.5 million 20,000 square foot Georgian mansion with 80 acres, called Rosewood, even has its own lake.

Many have speculated that Chelsea is being set up to launch a political career. She's the daughter of a former president and senator, and she's marrying the son of a former congressman and former congresswoman. Since I once ran for Congress in that very district and I continue to report on the politics of Westchester and New York State today, I can certainly see a scenario where Chelsea and husband might build their own home on the new 20-acre compound and establish her own residency at her parents' Bedford Hills estate. The Kennedys had Hyannis Port and the Bush clan Kennebunkport.

The Clintons could have built their dynasty in Chappaqua.

As I've said to others, it's Chappaqua's loss.

Lawrence Otis Graham is a New York attorney and the author of 14 books including Our Kind of People, Member of the Club and The Senator & The Socialite. He is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and lives in Chappaqua, New York.