Wrestling History with the President
Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Parting the Waters, draws on seventy-nine confidential conversations with President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001 to offer a unique record of the Clinton presidency, as well as one of the most vivid, frank, and intimate glimpses into the mind of a sitting president ever published, in THE CLINTON TAPES: Wrestling History with the President (Simon & Schuster; September 29, 2009; $35.00). Branch, a longtime friend of Clinton’s, served as his secret diarist, tape-recording intense, often wry, occasionally strained late-night conversations about virtually every major event, issue, and personality of Clinton’s two terms – everything the president thought and felt privately but was not able to say in public.
Their primary goals were to preserve uncensored raw material for future historians, and to provide a basis for Clinton’s post-presidential memoir. But in the informal setting of the White House family quarters, Branch soon found himself struggling to balance his roles as friend, counselor, and objective interviewer. Seeking to preserve his own witness for history, Branch dictated his impressions after each session, not only of the topics covered, but of Clinton’s widely varying moods, manner, and highly personal interactions with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. From these recollections, he has crafted an extraordinary blend of history, journalism, and politics, which sheds fresh light on a controversial president, a contentious era, and the nature of the presidency itself.
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“I’m up to my ass in alligators”
Clinton approached Branch shortly after his election to the presidency in 1992, asking whether Branch would agree to be his in-house historian, his “Arthur Schlesinger.” Instead, Branch proposed to help Clinton create an unfiltered, verbatim, contemporaneous record that would be under his sole control, in order to encourage maximum candor. In a quickly established pattern, Branch would be periodically summoned from his home in nearby Baltimore, often on short notice, whenever Clinton had an opening in his calendar. To avoid scrutiny in the fishbowl of the West Wing, the sessions were generally scheduled for late in the evening. Branch would be escorted by White House butlers and ushers upstairs to the president’s private office, called the Treaty Room, or to the family kitchen, the Truman Balcony, or perhaps the family parlor next to the president’s bedroom. At the end of every session, which usually lasted about two hours, Branch handed Clinton the only two copies of each tape, which Clinton put in what he called “a good hiding place” – his sock drawer.
Branch’s freewheeling conversations with Clinton had something of the quality of a bull session between old friends, which they had been since they shared an apartment with Hillary while working on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign in Texas. “I’m up to my ass in alligators,” Clinton told Branch one night in December 1993, mostly over North Korea’s nuclear program. But as Branch writes, “Revelations lay hidden everywhere for specialists and regular citizens alike. A U.S. president was framing issues, telling stories, and thinking out loud. Inescapably, he let on what he did and did not notice inside the nation’s central bunker – what penetrated the walls of government and the clatter of opinion, and how he shaped and responded to what penetrated.” (pp. 13-14)
War and peace, Whitewater and Lewinsky, presidents and popes
Topics ranged from still-simmering concerns like North Korea, health care reform, the Middle East, and gays in the military to wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, budget battles with Newt Gingrich and a Republican Congress, the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, Whitewater, the Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, and the deadlocked presidential election of 2000. Under instructions from the Clinton’s lawyers, Branch was forbidden to tape comments related to Clinton’s legal troubles. For a time, Branch feared that these problems would put an end to the project entirely, but the president’s attorneys were able to shield the tapes from subpoena. Feeling safer after Clinton’s re-election in 1996, the President allowed Branch to record one oral history session entirely about his memories and opinions of the Whitewater investigation. (pp. 428-30)
Branch’s text puts the reader on his shoulder in the White House, never knowing what to expect from a cerebral, emotional, besieged President of the United States. Each recording sessions covers multiple subjects, with news and nuggets popping up from every direction. A small sample suggests the range of revelation:
- Clinton lamented balky candidates for the Supreme Court: “I felt like Diogenes wandering in Athens, asking, where is an honest man I can give this job to.” (p. 43)
- Clinton complained of a rare inability to make communicate with a fellow political leader, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, after Jiang brusquely dismissed a plea for human rights, saying, “Who is to say your freedom is worth it?” (p. 109)
- Pakistani and Indian leaders foresaw “victory” after a nuclear exchange killing several hundred million people. “They really talk that way,” said a dismayed President Clinton. (p. 137)
- A drunken President Boris Yeltsin tripped security alarms by sneaking out on Pennsylvania Avenue in his underwear to hail a taxi for a late-night pizza. (p. 197)
- In a tense session on the night of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Chelsea Clinton sought and received advice for a homework essay on the character Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel. (p. 248)
- President Clinton discussed air strikes in Bosnia on the phone with the Secretary of State while chewing a cigar, finishing a crossword, dealing solitaire, and making comments on tape. (p. 268)
- Anticipating budget surpluses three years ahead of his hopes, Clinton predicted two political responses: pressure for highway construction and more diversions into personal scandal. (p. 483)
- Three weeks after NATO stopped bombing Kosovo in a landmark victory, Clinton explored why nearly 80 percent of Americans believed we were still fighting. (p. 555)
- Early in 2000, Clinton saw the leading GOP rivals as mirror opposites. George W. Bush was a gifted campaigner unqualified to be president, whereas John McCain was qualified but had no idea how to run. (p. 588)
- Clinton disclosed specific plots by Osama bin Laden to kill him in Bangladesh and Pakistan in the spring of 2000, saying, “I hope I’m sitting here with you again next month.” (p. 590-95)
- Clinton thought Gore could win the 2000 election with a wild-card selection of Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as his running mate. (p. 618)
- Clinton replayed an extraordinary two-hour conversation with Vice President Al Gore, airing grievances on both sides over responsibility for losing the 2000 presidential election. (p. 641)
Branch’s recollections provide fascinating new detail about Clinton’s reactions to these matters. When pressed by Branch to explain why he had become sexually involved with Monica Lewinsky, for instance, Clinton repeated over and over, “I think I just cracked.” Reeling, Branch expressed his great sadness that Clinton had handed his enemies a scandal of substance after coming so close to proving that all the others alleged against him were baseless.
In addition, Clinton offered memorable impressions and shrewd analysis of former presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, as well as many of the scores of foreign leaders with whom he dealt, including Tony Blair, Boris Yeltsin, Jiang Zemin, King Hussein, Nelson Mandela, Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yasser Arafat, and Pope John Paul II (whom he asked to relax the Catholic Church’s prohibition against birth control in order to help reduce the incidence of abortion).
Clashes with the press
As he began his sessions with Clinton, Branch was struck both by the ease with which they picked up their relationship after a twenty-year hiatus and the gulf that had opened up between them with Clinton’s election to the highest office in the land, with its life-and-death responsibilities. Moreover, he reflected on the divergent paths they had chosen, with Clinton trying to better the world through politics, and Branch seeking integrity through the pursuit of the written word. In their dialogue, Clinton’s tirades against the press were vociferous and frequent. The president mixed tirades with ever-changing theories about a culture of cynicism. In response, Branch urged both Bill and Hillary Clinton to try to cultivate and charm the press, rather than denounce or stonewall it. Nonetheless, to his shock, Branch found Clinton to be less cynical, more reflective, and more intellectually adventurous than many of his fellow writers. “It was hard to fathom,” he writes, “coming from the presumption of my own career. Yet most images of Clinton collapsed into formula and hype, however pervasive. They were myths.” (p. 379)
Challenging perceptions of Clinton and his presidency
Branch concludes: “Clinton’s tapes are a resource yet to be measured, like the telephone recordings still being released from his Cold War predecessors. Future scholars and specialists will find useful – often essential – the president’s exact words on many details that escaped my summary dictation. This book is a preview in close witness. Its format is distinct from a history, which strives to base compelling narrative and balanced judgment on evidence from wide-ranging, comprehensive sources. I did not try to evaluate Clinton’s version of complex events, and this first-person presentation makes me a participant in a memoir, not a history, gathering testimony from one central actor in American politics – Bill Clinton. His stories enjoy the benefits of privacy, immediacy, and control, but not hindsight. They are revealing but not conclusive. If they jar perceptions of Clinton or his presidency, healthy debate among citizens can repair mistakes and dispel even durable myths.” (p. 663)
Filled with surprising revelations, engaging anecdotes, pointed judgments, remarkable subtlety, and rich new detail, THE CLINTON TAPES offers a unique and enlarging perspective on one of our most brilliant, beleaguered, and perplexing presidents, as well as fresh lessons from his presidency.