"I hope my publisher gets his money back," a jovial Clinton joked to the more than 1,260 people gathered under the vaulted ceiling in the museum's Great Hall. "But more than anything else, it's a pretty good story and I hope America likes it."
Last night's high-profile media ball - comprising Clinton groupies, gossip columnists, Hollywood strivers and dueling power brokers from the political and literary spheres - was a hot ticket. Vogue editor Anna Wintour hugged herself in the air conditioning while actress Lauren Bacall held court inside the hall's echoing limestone interior.
Publishing people jostled with political types to find a little room to eat tiny steak canapes or, better yet, shake the hand of the tall and tanned former president enjoying his victory lap.
"This is huge," said Cathy Calvert, a national account manager for Random House, whose division, Alfred A. Knopf, published Clinton's book. "It is the biggest book event of the year, and it's a historical event. This book will be read by generations to come."
Clinton navigated the crowd with his wife, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his daughter Chelsea, who avoided reporters' questions while boyfriend Ian Klaus stood nearby. Chelsea and 20-something fact-checkers offered the youngest sets of eyes for Clinton's manuscript, the former president said, while his 85-year-old mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham offered the oldest.
"It was like a campaign where you're rushing to reach the deadline," she said, adding that for her husband, the book tour will be easy compared with those long days and nights of scribbling chapters in longhand. "The book tour starting tomorrow will be like a real campaign in the sense that you're no longer sitting at home alone."
Some Clinton fans already were closing ranks around the president, calling a front-page New York Times review on Sunday that panned the book more evidence of an anti-Clinton cabal. But others believed the bad press would hardly hurt sales of a book that already has sold out its first printing of 1.5 million copies.
"I asked a fellow author, 'If I were guaranteed 1.5 million in sales but had to swallow that review in The New York Times, would I do it?'" said Mark Green, a former New York mayoral candidate and co-chairman of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign in New York. "Before I could finish my sentence she told me, 'Absolutely!'"
Ever the politician, Clinton couldn't pass up the opportunity for some campaign season hint-dropping, noting that while
he has great faith in the judgment of American voters, sometimes the public can get distracted and forget the consequences of their ballots.
"When we let all this other static get in the way," he told the crowd, "we can make the darndest decisions you ever saw."
Whether the former Democratic president will overshadow the current candidate trying to take back the White House, though, remains to be seen.
Peggy Kerry, the sister of the Democratic presidential hopeful, attended the book party and mused about the effect of Clinton's memoirs on her brother's campaign. "We've heard pros and we've heard cons," she said. "I really don't know."