Bill Clinton acted on principle far more often than you may think.
Issue #15, Winter 2010
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas by Matthew Cooper
Let me start with a disclaimer. I used to live with Taylor Branch, the author of this interesting and essential book for understanding the Clinton years. This sounds more intimate than it was: For about a year and a half in the mid-1980s, I was an au pair for Branch and his wife, Christy, when they lived in the then (very!) un-gentrified Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. We got along well enough, but I wasn’t a very good au pair, being more interested in my nascent career and going out than in performing anything more than the most minimal child-care duties. We’ve seen each other only a handful of times since.
At the time, Branch was busy writing the first of the three books of his trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. While he would win the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards, he didn’t have much money (my room cost me $175 a month, low even by the standards of the time). But he had a discipline I always wish I had as a writer. If memory serves me, each morning Branch would rise at five a.m., if not earlier, and retreat to an office he’d built on the top floor of their row house. He’d work on his Kaypro, a bulky, corrugated-steel device said to be the first portable computer, but only because the behemoth had a handle on the top. Branch would take a break to get his kids out the door and then diligently work until 5 p.m., having dinner with his family. Maybe he’d get more work done in the evenings, except for when he sang with the choir in the nearby All Souls Unitarian church. And then he would start all over again.
That discipline served Branch well when he began this unusual project. As you probably know by now, Branch and Bill Clinton had 79 interviews during the course of the Clinton presidency. The two had met during the 1972 McGovern campaign, where they both worked in Texas, but they did not stay close afterward, by Branch’s account and my own memory. Branch was more interested in changing the world with his pen; Clinton sought higher office. They reunited shortly after the 1992 campaign and became close again. While President Clinton proposed making Branch an in-house historian, the Georgia-bred writer resisted the idea and came up with this interview scheme. They were taped, but Clinton kept the tapes after each session, using two recorders for back up. Branch would drive home to Baltimore and, in an act that would probably turn vehicle-safety advocates apoplectic, record every detail he could remember about the interview as he drove. Since this was Bill Clinton, the sessions often began late at night, and Branch, who was continuing to work on the third and final volume of his King biography, would be driving home to Baltimore often well past midnight.
Even after talking to the President, I’m not sure how many writers would have had the discipline or the wherewithal to record so consistently and in such detail. Critics have chided this second-hand account, but what was the alternative? To his credit, Branch isn’t hesitant to say where and when he can’t remember some particular wording. Nor does he hide his mistakes. A friend and counselor in their talks as much as an interviewer, Branch offers up plenty of bad advice–urging Clinton to dump “the middle-class Bill of Rights” from a speech when it proves to be popular.
Like a lot of people in Clintonland–I covered the Clinton White House for several magazines, including The New Republic, where I wrote the “White House Watch” column–I was aware that Branch was around the White House a lot, but I had assumed it was either to write a book about Clinton, help with his official memoirs, or simply as an F.O.B. the now little-used acronym for Friends of Bill. I hadn’t realized that they were off-the-record conversations, and most people in the White House didn’t either. The project was kept remarkably secret, especially given all the investigations of Clinton.
The candor engendered by this off-the-record agreement is illuminating, but not startling. We knew Bill Clinton was angry at the press and the Republicans and the scandalmongers, and here we see it in fuller detail. We knew he was a late-night work horse, and we see that, too. At one point, Clinton well past midnight, is in sweats, carrying a bowl of bean dip in one hand and chips in the other. He falls asleep in a barber’s chair. He rants like Lear. He’s often wrestling with allergies as much as he is history. And he’s brilliant, offering smart takes on everyone from Sam Nunn to Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Clinton Tapes is more than just a portrait of a president in real time. It is a stark reminder of other facets of Washington life that haven’t changed since the Clinton era, particularly the capacities of a right-wing message machine and a unified GOP bloc in Congress. It may be less potent than it was in the days of Whitewater, but it certainly still exists. The book also reminds us of the sheer limits faced by Democratic presidents who must clean up after Republican messes and try to corral their own atomized party. The insights here are as useful for understanding the Obama years as they are the Clinton years, and one hopes David Axelrod or others around the President find the time to thumb through a copy.
That said, the book itself is sometimes a difficult read, as many critics have noted. It’s laid out chronologically, session to session. Within each interview, Clinton and Branch bounce around from topic to topic, so that the overall feel is like that of Clinton’s own memoir, My Life, somewhat sprawling and meandering, but still interesting. Every couple of pages there’s a little shocker, usually a personal jab. Hillary calls Richard Gephardt an “asshole,” which Branch dutifully erases from the Clinton tape but then recounts for us. Who did Bill Clinton think would be the strongest Republican candidate against him in 1996? The surprising answer: Dick Cheney. Branch doesn’t elaborate why, but the anecdote goes to show that Clinton’s vaunted political EQ sometimes failed him. Granted, if you consider the more temperate pre-vice presidential Cheney–House leader, Gulf War secretary of defense, Gerald Ford’s chief of staff–it made for a more attractive candidate than the one who no one, including himself, wanted to see run in 2008. But still, that was hardly the GOP’s best choice that year, given that they could have gone with a younger McCain or one of their then strong governors from blue states, like John Engler or Tom Ridge. In any event, the mere fact that Bill Clinton feared Dick Cheney is kind of titillating.
There’s more fun stuff. Early in Clinton’s presidency, the living former presidents, save for Ronald Reagan, gathered for dinner at the White House and got deep into a discussion of why they hated Ross Perot. George H.W. Bush for obvious reasons: he ran against him and accused Bush of personal terrorism, like supposedly sabotaging Perot’s daughter’s wedding. Jimmy Carter hated how Perot interfered in the Iran hostage debacle, and Gerald Ford thought Perot had gotten rich off the public teat (his business made millions from government contracts) while acting like he was Mr. Free Market Businessman. Another interesting, anecdotal question answered by the book: Who did Clinton think Al Gore should pick as his running mate in 2000? Barbara Mikulski. Clinton believed the Maryland senator had effectively dispelled rumors about her sexual orientation and was the kind of fiery figure a cool Gore needed but never would take. (He dissed Bill Bradley for looking as though he slept in his clothes and thought Nebraskan Bob Kerrey, whom he had dubbed a little screwy, was at least a proven vote getter with conservatives.) It’s George Stephanopoulos who blocks David Maraniss from access to Clinton for his biography, something Clinton later regrets. And it turns out Bill Richardson wanted to head the Commerce Department from the beginning, which makes his withdrawal earlier this year all the more bitter. Branch also recounts Clinton’s interview with Rolling Stone in which he gets into a screaming match with the journalist William Greider, who accuses the President of being a political animal and a sellout. “I did everything but fart in his face,” Clinton said.
Greider is not alone in that assessment, and one of the book’s signal achievements is the light it sheds on the centrality of politics in the executive branch. This sounds obvious, but there is still a tendency in American life, especially on the left, to view the presidency as somehow above politics, to expect our presidents to disregard polls and just do the right thing. There were ample critics of Clinton on the left who felt like he was weak on supporting gays in the military or defending Lani Guinier, his embattled nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Today, there’s a similar hue and cry about Obama. Why hasn’t he closed Guantánamo Bay or ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” Why is he so concerned with getting Republican votes when he has a Democratic majority? The notion that politics, not just ideals, might determine their stance is a rare afterthought.
In Branch’s account, for example, we’re reminded of why we ended up with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Clinton had campaigned on the promise of ending discrimination against gays in the military, but when he came to office, it wasn’t at the top of his agenda. Critics of the policy, however, put it there. Not long after Clinton took office Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee and an opponent of allowing gays to serve, took a somewhat lurid visit to a Navy ship to inspect how close the quarters were–making the point about how allowing in homosexuals would damage unit cohesion. Colin Powell, then the Joint Chiefs chairman and, Clinton thought, a likely ’96 presidential candidate, vocally opposed the change, too. In the politics of 1993–before Ellen DeGeneres came out, before gay marriage was more than my friend Andrew Sullivan’s pet project, before the welcome and overdue bloom in rights for gays in the years since–Clinton was faced with the prospect of Congress codifying both the military’s ban on gays and its policy of inquiring whether recruits were homosexual. That would have been disastrous and frozen discrimination in its place. Within that context, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was born. It was imperfect, unfair, and wrong–but it was better than the alternative. Branch’s Clinton is always conscious of what he can and cannot do. I suspect if Obama had time to read this book he’d be sympathetic to the constraints that Clinton faced and that he himself still faces. And at least at the time of this review, despite much more favorable public attitudes toward gays, Obama has yet to lift the ban.
You can argue with how Clinton spent his political capital, especially in the early portion of his administration. The North American Free Trade Agreement was a hugely expensive proposition for Democrats because it was difficult for them to vote against their allies in organized labor, and it cost Clinton a lot. There’s now a consensus, at least among Democrats, that it didn’t payoff economically; even Hillary Clinton wanted the treaty renegotiated when she ran for president in 2008 (although it’s telling that Obama has not lifted a finger to renegotiate the deal as he promised). Nevertheless, Clinton chose to go down that path, and it was a brave one if not a wise one. Gun control was a killer issue for Democrats in 1994. But Clinton chose, steadfastly, to make it an issue. For his part, Obama proposed restoring the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 but has done nothing to that achieve that goal. And Clinton hiked taxes, which Obama hasn’t done, paving the way for the economic growth on the ’90s.
What emerges from these pages is a more courageous Clinton, not because he didn’t pay attention to politics but precisely because he did, and because he knew the limits of what he could and couldn’t do. Much of the book is about Haiti, because Branch is friends with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and serves as a go between. Clinton does wind up using diplomacy backed by force to give democracy a chance in that poorest of Western Hemisphere countries. Even Christopher Hitchens, as severe a Clinton critic as they come, gave the President credit for that move in a recent review of this book. You have to remember the politics of the time. The surge in Haitian illegal immigration sparked presidential action but it also came on the heels of “Black Hawk Down” and the withdrawal of American troops in Somalia. The President needed to do something, but helping restore Aristide to power was hardly a way to win votes. Eventually, the threat of U.S. force and the deployment of U.S. troops got Aristide back into power.
There’s some insight, though not much, into Clinton’s take on the scandals that marked most of his two terms; Clinton and Branch were careful to avoid conversations that could fall under a subpoena. The history of Whitewater is well-known, but it is still surprising to learn that when the first Whitewater stories emerge in 1993, Clinton wasn’t worried, according to Branch. Very quickly, though, Clinton realized that it was an endless political trap, although only Hillary had the foresight to argue against the appointment of a special prosecutor. Clinton, misjudging the politics, felt he has no choice but to make the appointment. Of course, the rest is history. The first special prosecutor, the experienced Robert Fiske, was ousted by a conservative judicial panel and replaced by Ken Starr, who proceeded to look everywhere for anything and was handed a gift called Lewinsky that led to presidential impeachment. There’s not much here on what happened to Clinton that led him astray with the young intern. “I just cracked,” he tells Branch.
And so we’re left with a President with a sense of the possible, and with great skills, who is nonetheless fighting for his political life throughout his presidency, constantly plummeting and redeeming himself. Is that just because of Clinton’s own temperament? In part, but more of it has to do with a Democratic president fighting for Democratic ideals while always keeping a close watch on his limitations.
Indeed, the lasting value of The Clinton Tapes is what it says about the modern Democratic presidency and the constraints it faces. If someone were making the Obama tapes now, they’d be different in temperament and tone. Obama wouldn’t be falling asleep in mid-sentence, and he probably wouldn’t be as prone to anger. But if Obama were describing the obstacles facing him, they’d be more similar than not.
True, Obama doesn’t face a gauntlet of special prosecutors. Clinton got only 43 percent of the vote; Obama won nearly 53 percent. History doesn’t repeat itself precisely. But the scandal machine lives on. The people who gave you Whitewater now help stir up talk of “death panels” and make hay of the likes of Van Jones, the ousted “green jobs” czar who signed a petition of wacko 9/11 truthers. The obstructionist Republicans in Congress who came up with not one vote for the Clinton economic package in 1993 persist as a unified wall of opposition to Obama initiatives. Mitch McConnell is as much an obstructionist as the Bob Dole in Branch’s book. Newt Gingrich was a saboteur of Clintonism, and he is reincarnated in John Boehner and Eric Cantor. The old names are gone, but Obama faces an opposition that’s just as united. Hence, he has spent nearly a year trying to pick off Olympia Snowe’s vote on health care, hoping the Maine moderate would help him carry the Senate. Even with a bigger majority than Clinton ever had, and supposedly a better strategy–Obama wouldn’t dictate a bill like that secretive, stupid Hillary–he has nonetheless faced an uphill battle to pass health care.
For Obama, as for Clinton, the unity of the GOP largely determines his lot. By contrast, the Democrats can’t seem to hold their members together. Clinton seethes at Sam Nunn for voting against his economic package, even though Nunn agrees with most of it and has one of the safest seats in the Senate. Clinton must round up Bob Kerrey and David Boren and other recalcitrant Democrats the way Obama is herding cats with the likes of Ben Nelson. For reasons I can’t entirely discern–maybe because they’re more diverse ideologically or less prone to respect authority–Democrats are less cohesive, and this gives the Democratic presidents of our times endless trouble.
And while different personalities in a lot of ways, so far Obama seems to match Clinton in his cunning and calculation. I don’t use those words as pejoratives. A president needs to be sly and knowing. People come to respect this only in historical figures. We like the way FDR played advisers off against each other and was so hard to pin down on the temperance issue between “wet” and “dry” that he was labeled a “damp.” We like that Lincoln astutely assembled a “Team of Rivals.” But George W. Bush got great applause when he said he didn’t look at polls (though everyone around him did). We expect Obama to likewise rise above politics. On the contrary, he should follow Clinton’s example, and he is at his best when he does, slyly putting Hillary in the Cabinet or making Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, one of the most attractive Republican figures, his ambassador to China.
Branch’s candid sessions with the President–the wrestling in the subtitle–are about what Clinton wants to do and the limits of what he can do. He wants to fire Janet Reno because she’s inept and has a political tin ear. He can’t, because it’ll look like he’s interfering with Whitewater. On the other hand, Clinton is a risk-taker, too. Everyone counsels against reaching out to the Irish Republican Army except midlevel aide Nancy Soderberg, who pushes him to invite Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, to the White House. What follows is a peace process, American-led, that did what once seemed impossible.
Branch is a sympathetic ear and counselor, but just because it’s Schlesingerian at times doesn’t make it less real. Unlike Al Gore, who ran away from the environment as a major issue in 2000, only to lead the green movement in his post-political life, Clinton took chances while he held office. He did foolish, hurtful things, too, of course. The important thing is knowing politics so you know when you can take chances and when you can’t. The protean Dick Morris–whose clout Clinton downplays in the book, incidentally–has described public opinion as being like the wind in sailing: You have to know how to tack and steer and navigate with it, not against it. You can still have a destination, but you have to know which way the wind is blowing to get there.
Despite the constraints of politics, Bill Clinton was braver than we remember. Branch’s efforts are a useful reminder that to be brave–and to have eight years in office instead of four–a modern Democratic president needs to be political. In the abstract, we like our presidents to be above it all. Obama ran against Washington, as all presidents do. To change it, he needs to be cunning and flexible–dare I say, Clintonesque.