October 4, 2009
The Dallas Morning News By Philip Seib
Most American presidencies spawn a wide range of interpretive histories, many of which differ greatly from how the president saw events. Presidential memoirs, meanwhile, tend to be self-serving, as their authors try to reshape the historical record in ways that will make them look best.
Among the most valuable tools for scholars and others interested in a specific presidency is a contemporaneous record: letters or a diary that captures the president’s real-time reactions to crucial moments. The Clinton Tapes presents a version of this.
Historian Taylor Branch, author of three splendid volumes about the Martin Luther King Jr. years, and Bill Clinton were co-coordinators of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign in Texas. They lost touch but reunited after Clinton’s election 20 years later. At the new president’s suggestion, he and Branch conducted private conversations, 79 in all, throughout Clinton’s White House tenure. The tapes remained in the president’s possession, but Branch took notes and dictated his own recollections of their conversations, which he calls “paraphrase resting on memory.”
The Clinton Tapes are partisan history. Branch makes no secret of his fondness and respect for Clinton. The conversations usually took place late at night in the White House family quarters, sometimes with a televised college basketball game in the background. Branch notes, “Our compressed focus must delve erratically, mimicking his job.”
Nevertheless, the book will be valuable to anyone seeking to understand the Clinton presidency. Clinton comes across as a remarkably intelligent master of detail and the mechanics of government. His 1998 State of the Union address underscored his abilities, as he recited an array of economic indicators that were the best in 30 years. But this speech came just days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, which illustrated the problems, many self-induced, that compromised his effectiveness.
Despite Branch’s friendly perspective, Clinton comes across as something of a whiner. He frequently complained about “distorted press coverage” of “bogus scandals” and flailed at Republican opponents who sometimes frankly admitted that undermining him personally was part of their job.
Clinton’s persistent political frustration points to one of his chief weaknesses: his lack of a discernible guiding philosophy, something Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan possessed. This made him susceptible to being overly distracted by political squabbles.
It should be remembered, however, that despite constant scandal, Clinton’s approval ratings remained high at the end of his presidency. Branch observes, “Something about Clinton provoked an antagonism spread broadly across the press, yet still unpersuasive to most voters.”
The book offers plenty of anecdotes, some of which are about Chelsea Clinton, who comes across as the brightest member of the family. Others describe Clinton’s fury about Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh being too helpful to his Republican tormentors. Many are more benign, such as his comment after a political discussion with Pope John Paul II: “I sure as hell would hate to be running against him for mayor anywhere.”
Whatever one’s opinion about Clinton and his presidency, The Clinton Tapes is fascinating reading primarily because it makes clear the breadth and intensity of a president’s tasks. Critics of any president should keep this in mind.