Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: The Clinton Tapes - Wrestling History By Taylor Branch

I was a huge supporter of Bill Clinton when he ran for President in 1992. I volunteered for the campaign and even went to the inauguration [albeit about a quarter mile from where he delivered his address]. I continued to support him in 1996, although the drip-drip-drip of scandal over the first four years [Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, Vince Foster] gave me pause. Watching Chief of Staff Leon Panetta on election night, prior to Clinton's acceptance speech to the large crowd in Little Rock, I was struck at the time by something Panetta said. He let on that was exhausted and needed a break. I got the definite feeling that he was essentially saying, "Look, somehow I made it through without this guy [Clinton] doing something enormously stupid, probably with a dame. I'm gettin' outta Dodge before Bubba gets caught."

After Lewinsky, I was done with Clinton. Like most Americans, I felt lied to and I'd had enough of his nonsense. It was a grave disappointment. Over the years, my opinion of Clinton has softened a bit - although I still think he should've called his autobiography You Can't Call it Cheating, 'Cause She Reminds Me of You. I was very interested, then, when one of my favorite historians - Taylor Branch - announced that he and Clinton had discreetly conducted taped interviews throughout Clinton's presidency - from 1993-2001. There were 77 sessions in all, and Branch was coming out with a book on the experience.

Branch had met both Clintons - Bill and Hillary - while working Texas for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. After that debacle, Branch lost touch with the Clintons, although he followed his political career, and even traveled to Little Rock on election night to watch the President-elect's acceptance speech. Six days after Election Day 1992, then, Branch was stunned to read an interview with the President-elect in the Baltimore Sun. In the interview, Clinton was saying he was said that thousands of election night celebrants had come to Little Rock and gone without his knowledge. "He [Clinton] said, for instance, that Baltimore novelist Taylor Branch, a long-time friend, had come and gone 'and I never saw him'." Then, shortly after Thanksgiving, Branch was caught off guard when he was contacted by the transition office of President-elect Clinton and told that the President-elect wished to see Branch and his wife, Christy. The meeting took place at a reception on December 7, 1992, held at the home of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. When the Clintons arrived, they struck up a conversation with Branch as if they'd just seen him the day before, as opposed to 20 years earlier.

From that encounter came a request in early 1993 from the transition office asking Branch if he would come to Washington to assist with the final preparations on the Inaugural Address. Branch and his wife attended the Inauguration [their seats were a helluva lot better than mine] and even spent some time with the Clintons back at the White House that evening. Now officially an FOB [Friend of Bill], Branch was contacted again in June 1993 by the White House Social Office inviting he and Christy to a large formal dinner at the White House. There, an usher told them that the Clintons wished to see them upstairs. Branch figured there would be a smaller group to which they were being invited, so he was surprised to find the President alone. Clinton wasted no time, telling Branch he needed "an Arthur Schlesinger" to help him. He wanted to put an in-house scholar on staff, as JFK did with Schlesinger.

Branch demurred, as he was still in the middle of writing his Civil Rights Era trilogy/Martin Luther King biography [Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge]. He agreed, however, to help Clinton work on coming up with a system to keep an accurate historical record. Over the summer, Clinton and Branch finalized the decision to hold taped interview sessions - monthly, if possible. The first was held October 17, 1993, the last on January 8, 2001. The arrangement had to be kept secret, as by that point Whitewater was heating up and anything Clinton touched was liable to be subpoenaed. Clinton would not be able to be candid on the tapes if he thought they would be released while he was still President. The only people who knew of the project where Clinton, Hillary, Taylor, Christy, Chelsea Clinton, Clinton's social secretary and Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall. It was agreed that Clinton would keep possession of the tapes, with Branch taking notes and dictating those notes into a summary, which he then provided to Clinton. It was agreed that any issue that might fall within the realm of a special prosecutor would be recorded on separate tapes in the event that Kendall needed to comply with any court order dealing with Clinton's words/thoughts/notes on Whitewater.

After 77 sessions, Clinton used the tapes in the writing of his autobiography, My Life. There is an arrangement for them to be stored at the Clinton Presidential Library for eventual release. Branch himself is anxious to hear them, as he never has and wants to see how accurate he was in recapturing the sessions in his notes. The Clinton Tapes - Wrestling History, then, is not a transcript of those tapes. Instead, it is the story of how they came about, what it was like during eight years of recordings, and a recreation of the conversations from the notes Branch took.

Ordinarily, I'd be weary of such a book. Without the actual tapes, one could argue, how could an author possibly write a book called The Clinton Tapes? Well, if the author was anyone other than Taylor Branch, I'd agree. Branch, however, is one of the most gifted historians of our era. He bona fides are beyond reproach - as anyone who has read his trilogy can attest. So, I decided to give Clinton another chance.

As you can imagine, the book presents a positive side of Clinton. Branch, after all, is a friend. But there are other sides of Clinton presented as well. The President comes off as....well, human. In a positive way [not in the way of, 'well, if you could get a blow-job from an intern, wouldn't you?!' kind of human]. The result is an engaging, brilliant piece of contemporary history. While certainly historians will treasure the tapes themselves when they are eventually released, in the meantime we have Branch's book to analyze the Clinton years.

Clinton is funny, angry, tired, wired, frantic, and mellow. The goal - to capture the history of his presidency "at the time" - is achieved brilliantly. Branch is particularly gifted in his writing on the Lewinsky scandal. For his part, Branch - prior to Clinton's admission - did not believe the story. He felt that there were probably transgressions in Clinton's marriage in the past, but that none of these had occurred since being elected President. In hindsight - after Clinton's admission - he was able to see small changes in Clinton's behavior at the time, but nothing that would have led him to believe Clinton had had an affair. Reading about that experience alone is worth the price of the book.

Finally, there is a story at the end of the book that - having read the whole book - I think captures Clinton perhaps as close as possible to his "true" self. It is July 6, 2004, and Clinton's My Life has been published. Clinton invited Branch to a party celebrating the event. Getting Branch alone, Clinton turned very solemn and said, "I have something for you." It was an envelope with a check for $50,000, made out to Branch. Clinton continued: "Now, I'm giving out bonuses to everybody who was involved in the book, and there couldn't have been a book without you. I couldn't get you to ghostwrite it for me. You've turned down money, but I want you to have this. I'm the same person I was when you and I were in Texas together and neither one of us had a pot to piss in. And you've spent all this time writing about Martin Luther King, and sometimes I wish I had done that myself. But you still don't have a pot to piss in. I've never had any money, and now I do, and frankly the only reason I want some is to share it with people who are my friends and are doing good."

I still think what Clinton did in the Lewinsky case was a fiasco. I still think he harmed the presidency and his country. But he had a more-than-willing-partner in that: the Republicans and the Right, who were clearly out to get him from Day 1. By bringing the impeachment charges on the Lewinsky issue, Republicans severely hampered Clinton's abilities to govern. The 9/11 Report, in fact, notes that one of the best chances to get Osama bin Laden was scrapped because Clinton feared it would be viewed as a political wag-the-dog move.

All that being said, Branch's book has given me a greater appreciate for all that Clinton did. It reminded me what it was that so attracted me to him as a candidate 18 years ago. It also shed some light on the President's relationship with Hillary. At the time, I believed that Hillary had known all along that Clinton had had an affair with Lewinsky and that she and Bill simply had an 'arrangement'. Branch's writings make it clear that, in fact, Hillary was stunned, deeply hurt and changed by the event. As were we all.

For those who hate Clinton, Branch's book will not change their minds. But for those - like me - who grew ambivalent about the 42nd President of the United States after scandal, after scandal, the book is a great way to get reacquainted with the Comeback Kid from Arkansas.

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