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10.04.09

The Unguarded Bill Clinton

Former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer says there’s never been a presidential portrait as intimate as Taylor Branch’s new book—and we’ll never get a download like this about the second Bush administration.

Political-literary friendships go back a long way in our history. Alexander Hamilton prettied up George Washington’s public messages. Nathaniel Hawthorne penned the campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce—perhaps the only boring thing he ever wrote. A young and unknown William Dean Howells wrote Lincoln’s 1860 bio, a job he managed to pull off without ever actually meeting him—a sure sign of a novelist in training.

The friendship between Taylor Branch and Bill Clinton is, in other words, the latest manifestation of an old trend. But the tangled history of Clinton and Branch is unusually compelling, full of the great themes and some of the dysfunctions of an ambitious generation. Both were talented Southerners exposed to racial injustice at a young age, and determined to fight it. They lived together in the same apartment in Austin in the summer of 1972, as co-organizers of the Texas McGovern campaign (Branch drew the straw that allowed him to visit an ailing LBJ—a fact that still annoys Clinton).

There are many moments of inside knowledge that were unavailable even to those working in the administration.

For all these reasons, it made sense that a newly elected President Clinton would ask his friend to become a conversational partner, knowing that the cyclotron of events was about to reach a speed at which it would be difficult to recall everything. They did not want to make secret recordings of Oval Office conversations, though that is a very exact way of remembering. Instead, these two Southerners wanted to talk out what was happening—almost literally using the front porch, or the closest thing to it (the Truman Balcony) for their ruminations. And so the wrestling—Branch’s word—began. Over eight years, Branch made 79 visits to Clinton’s White House, and they chatted about everything under the sun. The result, predictably, is a long book that has received mixed reviews for its garrulousness and perhaps for the simple fact that it is about Bill Clinton, who still awakens strong feelings on the left as well as the right. But most of those reviews fail to appreciate how important it is that this book exists at all. It would have been the easiest thing on earth for a distracted president to avoid the hard work of history. It’s certain we will never get a download like this about the second Bush administration. The result is a long narrative that can ramble, as conversations do, but is an essential contribution all the same.

book-cover---the-clinton-tapes
The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President By Taylor Branch. 720 pages. Simon and Schuster. $35. ()

It’s quite true, as many critics have pointed out, that there is something suspect about a book based on Branch’s memories of conversations rather than the original tapes themselves. It may even have been an act of deception, or at least nondisclosure—it’s unclear whether anyone knew that Branch was compiling his own tapes on his long rides back to Baltimore in the middle of the night, after handing the originals to President Clinton. Listening to the real conversations would have been more historically honest. But thanks to this book, the public now knows that those tapes exist, liberated from the sock drawer where he kept them, and someday historians will have access to them. They will make a hell of an audio book.

Branch is not disinterested—he wears his support for Clinton on his sleeve, though he expresses strong disapproval at times, particularly over the Lewinsky scandal. But it is hard to imagine a president allowing such intimate access to an ordinary reporter, and that access pays off—there has never been a presidential portrait like this. Edmund Morris wrote himself into his Reagan biography, but that was an act of pure invention. Ben Bradlee gave us Conversations with Kennedy—a book, ironically, that Branch trashed when it came out. But no one has ever done so much interviewing in a president’s home—the upper floors of the White House—and described those private surroundings so well. No one has ever asked a president so many questions over so many years, and received such unflinching answers. No one has ever brought quite the same sense of impassioned advocacy—reminding President Clinton of their shared reverence for the civil rights movement and the idealism of their youth, while witnessing the daily toll taken by politics at the highest level.

Speed Read: The Clinton TapesThe result is quite a ride, at least for this passenger. I have zero objectivity, as a former Clinton speechwriter, and an admirer of both men. At some point, I knew that these tapes existed, though I never spoke of them to outsiders. But to read them in their entirety is something else. There are many moments of inside knowledge that were unavailable even to those working in the administration. Students of the Middle East peace process will find much new material to hash over, including Clinton’s reflections on all of the major players, and the personal relationships that often moved events forward, and just as often thwarted them (there is a very good joke about Yasser Arafat and Tom Cruise that Arafat’s own aides were telling at the time of the Camp David summit). Clinton was driving the peace plan forward until nearly the last day of his administration, and it is still heartbreaking to read of its narrow failure.

With China and Russia, there are also interesting insights into how Clinton got along with his counterparts at a crucial time in the U.S. relationship with both countries. The early reviews have focused on the sitcom moments—like Yeltsin in his underwear, hailing a cab in search of pizza. But there is a great deal more than that (another surprise: Yeltsin wanted U.S. permission to carve out a zone of special influence for Russia, which he called “the Monroesky Doctrine). In conversation, at least, Clinton was exploring creative ways to lift the U.S. embargo of Cuba, which would have been a blockbuster. Surprises also trail out of the sequences describing Clinton’s meetings with President-elect George W. Bush, who urged him to go to North Korea to negotiate directly with Kim Jong-Il—after swearing that he never would. Even before leaving office, Clinton suspected that his successor wanted to take out Iraq, and that it would be a disaster.

Over eight years, there are many human moments, and it is arresting to see the strain of the job on a president known for his perpetual ebullience (after the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia, Clinton wondered aloud “whether anyone could be sure God favored this cause”). Branch records personal revelations of a kind I do not think I have ever read before in a White House book—members of the first family acting, well, like a real family, puttering around in bathrobes and slippers and worrying about homework assignments and distant friends in addition to everything else (hilariously, Hillary Clinton confesses a dream about Henry Kissinger). Readers get a lot of the flavor of living in close proximity to a president—the motorcade-empowered ability to be in all places at all times, combined with the five-events-in-a-day strangeness of it all; random encounters with Nobel laureates, championship sports teams, ululating Bedouins, and at the epicenter of this hurricane, a tired man and his friend talking to each other in the wee hours.

Not all of it was a joy ride. Clearly, Bill Clinton would just as often have liked to be left alone, and who could blame him? His eyelids occasionally flutter as he wards off sleep, and one night he was so exhausted that one he fell asleep in his barber’s chair, leaving the ushers powerless to wake him. For Branch, too, this was a protracted labor, leaving his family to make the round trip from Baltimore in his pickup truck, often stumbling out of the White House after 1 a.m. One night, feeling pummeled by the conversation, he began his recording, “It was not fun.” But they stuck with it—which may be the motto of the Clinton White House. Even after the rise of Gingrich and the attack dogs he unleashed (Branch describes the bullets fired into the residence by angry passers-by), and serious setbacks caused by Clinton’s enemies and his own mistakes, they ground out every inch of this conversational campaign.

Among other lessons, reading a book this long and detailed is a reminder of just how much government happened during Clinton’s eight years—the economy improved, jobs were created, foreign policy predicaments were solved, alliances were strengthened, and so on. We may not have needed every single piece of information in this book; for example, it can now be revealed that in 1995 Clinton’s blood pressure was 113/78. But Branch conveys a vivid sense of the give and take of politics and the fact that all of us, even presidents, have good and bad days. At times, those years feel very far away; Branch once muses on a newfangled “cellular” phone in 1994. At other times, as Branch describes the travails of an optimistic new president trying to persuade a cynical Congress to pass health-care legislation, the book seems frighteningly contemporary.

After the dust settles, I have a feeling that historians will be sifting these rich mineralogical excavations for years to come. It is not quite the definitive statement-as-uttered, but still, there is something refreshing and unguarded about The Clinton Tapes. Americans will continue to think what they want to about the 42nd president, but to hear these conversational tidbits from the boiler room of the ship of state is to know that the government was working overtime.

Asked to supply a line for Clinton’s first inaugural, Branch dipped into his vast reservoir of knowledge about Martin Luther King Jr. and came up with a passage about mountaintops and valleys. Like all journeys on a biblical scale, we get a fair amount of both in The Clinton Tapes. But the arc of history eventually bends toward justice, as King almost said, and it also bends toward accuracy. In striking out for “truth over myth,” and recording the great adventure exactly as he heard it, Taylor Branch has helped Americans to understand an important presidency, and bequeathed an important legacy of his own.

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Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter and senior adviser to President Clinton.