Speed Read: The Clinton Tapes

The Daily Beast culls the top 11 revelations of Taylor Branch’s blockbuster new book about his candid chats with the Big Dog, including his thoughts on Gore’s campaign and the Whitewater mess.

Over 79 taped recording sessions, historian Taylor Branch and President Clinton freely discussed everything from Yassir Arafat to Monica Lewinsky. Now Branch has produced a book based on his recollections from these conversations. The Daily Beast gave it a speed read to come up with 11 moments that tell us something new about the Clinton presidency.

1. The President as Gore Campaign Analyst

“‘I think you made a mistake not to use me more in the last ten days,’ Clinton told Gore, ‘but otherwise that was not a big deal. I was much more upset about your message, now that we’re being honest’… The president kept telling me their confrontation was surreal. The whole world thinks Gore ran a poor campaign from a strong hand. Yet Gore thinks he had a weak hand because of Clinton, and ran a valiant campaign against impossible odds.

2. Yeltsin, a Drunk

“President Clinton said [Yeltsin’s] chronic escapes into alcohol were far more serious than the cultivated pose of a jolly Russian. They were worrisome for political stability, as only luck had prevented scandal or worse on both night of this visit. Clinton had received notice of a major predawn security alarm when Secret Service agents discovered Yeltsin alone on Pennsylvania Avenue, dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi. Yeltsin slurred his words in a loud argument with the baffled agents. He did not want to go back into Blair House, where he was staying. He wanted a taxi to go out for pizza. I asked what became of the standoff. ‘Well,’ the president said, shrugging, ‘he got his pizza.’”

3. Clinton as Doting Dad

“Gore zeroed in on three lightly committed January days, but the president pronounced them vital to Chelsea’s schoolwork. Gore blinked. So what? He stared through Clinton’s halting explanation why this would be a bad time—because Hillary must join him in Japan, and the junior-year midterms are the most pressure-packed events in all of high school. Mutual exasperation spiked. ‘Al,’ Clinton told him, ‘I am not going to Japan and leave Chelsea by herself to take these exams.’ Gore erupted. He thought Clinton had lost his bearings. They had a big fight, said the president, and were still wrangling about dates for Japan.”

4. His Self-Doubt

“Maybe he was too regular—too much himself. Maybe the press demonized him because he did not play a grand role in the White House… Maybe Clinton would have done better to conceal the leadership process until he could make pronouncements from on high.”

5. When the Joy Left the White House

“Exoneration was a mirage, he mused, because the substance itself was largely beside the point. His critics simply rummaged for more accusations. The driving motive all along was some mix of partisan strategy and prurient indulgence, sustained by people above or indifferent to the country’s real political problems. Clinton said the scandal machine had taken a lot of the joy out of being president.”

6. His Biggest Mistake

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“[Clinton] had been a fool to establish the Whitewater special prosecutor. He called that pliant decision the biggest mistake of his presidency. Its immediate booby prize was $4 million in personal legal bills thus far, but lasting consequences would weaken the office for every successor.”

7. Master Multitasker

“Almost on cue, a Bosnia phone call came through from Secretary of State Christopher. I left the tapes running to record the president’s side. No, he kept saying, he did not agree to restore the U.N. sign-off for air strikes. Who said he did? Why would he want to get Boutros-Ghali back in there? Clinton repeatedly assured Christopher that he had not wavered on scrapping the two-key agreement. He said this sabotage must be Chirac. It was Chirac’s way of acting tough but then wiggling out behind some ruse. During pauses, when Christopher apparently tracked his sources, the president chewed an unlit cigar while glancing at his New York Times crossword puzzle, which he had finished and laid aside. Then he dealt solitaire busily on the table as he traded thoughts with Christopher on how to stamp out the rumors of backsliding, and now the politics, because a stronger U.N. role in Bosnia would abet a congressional challenge to his policy. The president hung up, holding his cards, which snapped me out of a reverie that this was extreme multitasking even for him. ‘That’s what it’s like,’ he said, of Bosnia. ‘Terrible and never ending.’”

8. Clinton the Fighter

“He said the whole thing was stacked against him. It was not enough to do his job after all, nor was it an accident that these persecutions had reared up just in time to spoil his hard-won political gains. Both to me and his lawyer on the phone, he railed against the stance of political cooperation. He called it naïve, vowing to fight. More than once he exploded, ‘I’m tired of this limp-dick shit.’ McCurry was good, he conceded in a rush, and he like him, but Mike tended to give in too much. Clinton pleaded for an aggressive army. ‘I want somebody to stand up to these people,’ he cried. ‘This is ridiculous.’”

9. Afghanistan, 1996

“It was highly ironic, said the president, to see fundamentalist groups across Asia turn hostile after cooperating with us against the Soviet Union through the Cold War. Dogmatism hardened them for war, and some militias—even in sophisticated Turkey—provided better schools and garbage service than complacent secular governments. The political elements for democratic stability, Clinton observed, remained elusive in many parts of the world.”

Ted Widmer: The Unguarded Bill Clinton10. Bubba on Leadership

“[T]he president expressed more than once a genera lesson that leaders need to be at peace—not totally at peace, but roughly united in mind and spirit. He said torment skews judgment. If you are upset, you will lack the self-command to hear opposing views, without which you cannot even stand wisely on your own. A job like this requires a settled base inside, he kept saying, because decisions every day can offend and hurt people in very large numbers.”

11. King Hussein on Iraq

“[Hussein] said Arab countries in the region wanted Iraq to stay weak. In private, they applauded the U.N.’s military and economic sanctions since the Gulf War, because they contained a proven threat, and Arab leaders did not really care what to Saddam as long as Iraq was feeble. On the other hand, they realized that a weakened Iraq would always be unstable, vulnerable disintegration and external plots. If Saddam were to die or be removed, Hussein said Syria would move in from the west and ethnic Kurds would renew their chronic drive to secede. Iraq’s Shia majority would align with religious cohorts next door in Iran, while the minority Sunni Muslims would gravitate toward Jordan and Saudi Arabia. King Hussein reminded Clinton that Iraq was not a natural country.”

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