By David Bromwich
Volume 56, Number 17 · November 5, 2009
In the fall of 1993, Taylor Branch agreed with Bill Clinton to conduct occasional interviews on tapes that would be turned into an oral chronicle of the Clinton presidency. The two had been friends more than twenty years earlier in Texas on the McGovern presidential campaign of 1972. Branch, in more recent years, had published the first volume of his trilogy on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and was in the middle of writing the second; the tapes, for him, would be an interruption of planned work, whereas for Clinton they promised to be a flattering record of work in progress. This inequality was balanced by the fact that Branch liked the idea of seeing the President close-up. The two resumed their friendship with ease, and, between October 1993 and March 2001, produced the seventy-nine interviews of which the present book offers a digest.
The arrangement was peculiar in one respect. Clinton kept the tapes, while Branch had to dictate impressions on tapes of his own as he drove back to Baltimore from each visit to the White House. Clinton used the originals to assist in the writing of his memoirs; at some future date, they will probably be open to scholars. This set-up means that Branch’s chronicle has not a single extended quotation of Bill Clinton. A sentence every two or three pages is what we get, surrounded by dutiful and often undistinguished paragraphs of summary. Still, Branch has eyes and ears. When he can pause long enough to violate a self-denying ordinance, he also has considerable powers of analysis. Yet an unsuspecting confidence is the pervasive tone—a trust that appears to have continued beyond recorded conversations. Branch sent proofs of the book to Clinton and invited him to suggest nonsubstantive revisions.
The sprawling summary that makes up The Clinton Tapes follows Clinton’s train of associations. One conse-quence of Branch’s starting well into Clinton’s first year in office is a foreshortened view of the defeat of the President’s first project, the legalization of gays in the military, and a minimal treatment of the launching of his second, the initiative to convert the country to a plan of universal health care. The choice of the gay issue as the first of this presidency was improbable in a way Branch does not quite seem to grasp. Though an obvious next step in toleration, it was sure to be controversial, and remote from the centrist spirit in which Clinton had run his campaign. It could be relied on to bring back the acrimonious battles of the 1980s.
David Mixner and other leaders of the gay community had advised him against taking up the cause so early. Clinton drove ahead in spite of their advice, and gave a taste of victory to enemies who would prove relentless. There would be other casualties from this early defeat. Clinton thought of appointing Senator Sam Nunn as secretary of defense in 1996, but the memory of photographs of Nunn touring a navy ship and shivering at the prospect of gay sailors in such close quarters assured a veto of his nomination by the liberal wing of the party.
On universal health care, Branch misses the drama of attrition and anti-climax by which the President’s soaring commitments were abridged week by week until the concept expired. This series of capitulations was the source of many people’s later suspicion that Bill Clinton was fond of the language of principle but would finally compromise on almost anything. Again, the character of his performance on health care, and his handing it to his wife to add to her luster, seemed to confirm the rumors that the President’s conduct was shaded by cronyism and his demeanor slack and self-indulgent. He was said to run policymaking at the White House as a series of inspired bull sessions: an impression successfully planted by Bob Woodward in The Agenda. Branch faithfully registers Clinton’s irritation at that partial portrait and, without exactly refuting it, convinces us that the reality was far more intricate. He quotes Clinton saying later that he should have “started with a small piece of health reform” and been content to profit from whatever public good might follow.
About the time Branch settled into his irregular White House routine, the President was considering the appointment of a politician to the Supreme Court. He wanted to break the solid streak of lawyers and judges. Mario Cuomo, Bruce Babbitt, and, in the following year, George Mitchell were all seriously considered, but Cuomo turned it down; Babbitt, after a tantalizing pause, was told that his regional influence was needed at the Department of the Interior; and Mitchell withdrew his name out of loyalty to the President’s need for Democratic numbers in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Clinton already found himself dogged by old enemies from Arkansas. He was sure the Whitewater controversy would die down since there was nothing to the charges. But Cliff Jackson and Sheffield Nelson, “both of whom,” Branch says, had “turned from Democrats to failed Republican candidates” in Arkansas, had time on their hands and a shot at getting their names in the papers. “They don’t have anything else going in their lives,” said Clinton, “but trying to bring me down.” He surrendered early to the demand for an independent prosecutor because he felt so secure about the innocuousness of the case. This was a large misjudgment. He had underestimated the malice, the wildness, and the persistence of his enemies. These portents coincided with the emergence of Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America—a gimmick whose crude appeal to an old anti- federalism brought a midterm Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in November 1994.
That Clinton was able to ride out that storm was the first convincing show of his mastery. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, also served as a reminder to the more genteel of his accusers that the pleasure of hating Clinton made for a sport that could go over the edge. The virulence of the anti-government forces of that time is brought out by Branch’s recollections here: even Clinton’s statements after Oklahoma City on the importance of respect for government were widely taken to be one more piece of opportunism. And once the grimness of the event was absorbed, the Republicans in Congress held hearings not on Oklahoma City but on the abuse of federal power in the FBI assault on the Branch Davidians at Waco.
Taylor Branch admires Clinton within reason, but when there are two sides to an argument he is apt to see things from Clinton’s point of view. He conveys well the vituperative rage of the Republicans at Clinton’s theft of their “small is better” programs and the anti-government rhetoric that had been their sole argumentative resource. The climactic episode here was the repeal of much of the welfare system and the substitution of work requirements: a decision on which Branch comments too briefly. The rejection of welfare precipitated, as Clinton knew it would, a break with veterans of the civil rights movement, such as Marion Wright Edelman, who had been his friends for two decades. When Clinton reversed his liberal commitments, he found high-sounding reasons to do so, as well as one good party reason: it would take the issue away from the Republicans forever. But no one doubted at the time that he did it to buy insurance for the 1996 election, which he was already favored to win. This fact Branch does not omit but plays down.
Of Russia in the early years of his presidency, as of Bosnia and Kosovo in the later years, little is heard in Branch’s summary of the tapes. It is rare to see a show of passion from the President away from domestic policy. Yet Clinton flares with anger when he thinks about Saddam Hussein—a puzzling contrast (as Branch portrays it) with his almost genial acceptance of the tyranny of Suharto. The leader of Iraq is the only person in these pages whom Clinton will be heard to say he hates. He hates him, Clinton says, for what he has done to his people. Yet there is something heartless in Clinton’s own remarks about the deaths of Iraqi civilians in the botched American missile attack of June 26, 1993. He had ordered the bombing of Iraqi intelligence headquarters in retaliation for a supposed plot against the life of George H.W. Bush; three of twenty-three Tomahawk cruise missiles went astray and killed Iraqis who lived nearby. “I regret the loss of life,” Clinton tells Branch for the record. “His tone was wooden and mechanical,” Branch comments, “with barely a trace of feeling, but he repeated the phrase several times.” A similar tone of calculation is audible as Clinton considers the politics of an American operation to restore the govern- ment of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. “When the first soldier dies, I’m a dead duck.”
Clinton was baffled by the press coverage that made his smallest move appear drenched in cynicism and his remotest associations corrupt or devious. Reports like those by Jeff Gerth in The New York Times on Whitewater and later on Wen Ho Lee, the alleged smuggler of nuclear secrets—sensational exposures that would come to be largely discredited—were damaging to the minimal reputation for probity without which a politician cannot be trusted to act. Clinton saw the Times and The Washington Post as the heart of the problem. By their pursuit of scandals, they gave permission to the tabloids lower down the ladder, and he said with some justice: “I think these papers have corrupted themselves over Whitewater.” The reporters and columnists alike made the most of any hint of purposeful alliance between the President and his wife. They were no less satisfied to transmit the slightest suggestion of marital discord.
Branch’s record suggests that the political intelligence shared by Bill and Hillary Clinton was perhaps more interesting and flexible than either separately commands. The American press lacked the wit for a single reporter to discover this; yet it comes out unmistakably in several interludes of The Clinton Tapes. Consider Hillary’s account (on her way to bed) of a day’s business in the health care debate, where a surgeon has testified that government does nothing to assist Medicare. “She and the president,” writes Branch, “completed each other’s sentences in a chortling spoof of doctrinaire contradictions in medical policy.” One of them trots out the slogan that “no American could be denied quality health care,” and the other adds, “but no one was required to pay.” The Clintons enjoyed each other’s quickness and shared a familiar scorn for time-wasters.
The establishment press ended by finding Bill Clinton not so much elusive as empty. His wife’s political ambition, as shown by her run for the Senate in 2000, and the sympathy with which he worked to advance it were taken as proof of a quality somehow worse than ambition in himself. What could that be? At this distance, it is barely possible to reconstruct the grounds for the continuous heat of jeering sarcasm that issued from Howell Raines, William Safire, and Maureen Dowd at the Times, and from Len Downie, Sally Quinn, and David Broder at the Post. The lightheaded meanness of the attitude carried over to their disdain for Gore in 2000, and influenced a jocular acceptance of Bush. This was true not only of the credulity toward the Whitewater charges and Paula Jones, but regarding smaller scandals as well, from the firing of agents at the White House travel office to the false rumor of vandalism by the Clinton staff on their departure in 2001.
The mood of the press was contagious: it was taken up by Louis Freeh at the FBI and led, in the worst miscarriage of all the crowd of accusations, to the indictment by a special prosecutor of Henry Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, for eighteen felonies, including conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice. The prosecutor there would end by settling for a guilty plea on a single misdemeanor; but the career of Cisneros had been effectively stopped.
As for the Paula Jones civil suit, Judge Susan Wright ruled, as Branch reminds us, on April 1, 1998, that Jones “had no case for sexual harassment even under her version of the facts.” The Republicans went ahead with impeachment, unembarrassed. Once they had Monica Lewinsky in their sights, they calculated that salacious curiosity would stir up energy sufficient to cover the flimsiness of Jones’s legal case. At this late date, Clinton’s friends were still anxious on his behalf about Whitewater, but he was unworried. “If Starr had gleaned even a pea-shooter’s case from those thickets,” Clinton said, “it would have been fired long ago.” His view was hardly disinterested, but his verdict on the investigations is impossible to dispute: “I trusted the press. I trusted the Congress. I trusted the courts. And I was wrong on all counts.”
Yet through all that hunt of obloquy, Bill Clinton was strangely passive. Maybe, in 1997, when Branch reports having found him abstracted and reticent, Clinton was taking the measure of his enemies and wondering whether his lapse with a White House intern would eventually lend the other charges a post facto credibility. But on the whole, it seems fairest to see Clinton’s preference for cunning over aggression as part of a temperamental adaptability. If this was a weakness, it went with his most basic appetite. “He loved politics so much,” Branch sums up, “that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats.”
This made Clinton sometimes emollient beyond what was required by the occasion. He commiserated, for example, with Yitzhak Rabin, during the Oslo process, about how hard it must be for an Israeli soldier to talk to Yasser Arafat. Rabin had no need for such a show of concern. “After all,” he told Clinton, “we don’t need to make peace with our friends.” Clinton himself was always forgiving when he saw an enemy on the point of becoming a friend. He was tickled by a letter he received, in early days at the White House, from Richard Nixon about Russia. Clinton pronounced it “brilliant” and was moved to praise Nixon extravagantly at his funeral.
Clinton’s Middle Class Bill of Rights—featuring tax deductions for education—was proposed in December 1994 to counter his midterm defeat; it was a step too far in conciliation for Branch. And as he records, Clinton himself expressed contempt for the bright idea even as he wielded it. Mixed with that feeling must have been also a trace of self-contempt. Branch here reports a rare intervention. He told the President that the idea was nothing but pandering—”seducing voters to feel good by running down the government.” Clinton replied bitterly that the voters were sovereign…. They were the boss. He would give them what they wanted, even if it was stupid…. He would imitate Republican salesmanship to give the voters a borrowed gift. To do so, he would make middle-class tax cuts the centerpiece of his legislative program [in 1995].
In this case, as in Clinton’s refusal to hit back against Jesse Helms after Helms said the President would not be safe on any army base in North Carolina, Branch thought that Clinton made a misjudgment in trying to strike an attitude above the battle. Yet Clinton was capable in fact of speaking with affection even about Helms. He enjoyed rapprochements with Robert Dole, Trent Lott, Alan Simpson, and others who “poisoned in jest” as part of everyday politics. They, in turn, marveled at Clinton’s ability to absorb blows, come off the ropes, and win the next round in an unspectacular way.
A certain fatigue with Clinton’s view of things may set in, three of four hundred pages into the Tapes, when one realizes that he estimates half the public persons in the world as politicians. It is hard to imagine another president saying of Pope John Paul II, after seeing him fetch applause from a crowd: “I sure as hell would hate to be running against him for mayor anywhere.” But Clinton simply had an unreserved love of the game of politics. This made it possible for him to respect Fritz Hollings’s mordant attack on his attempt to cook up drum rolls and little fanfares of “bipartisanship” over balancing the budget. As Branch relates Clinton’s own appreciative summary:
We Democrats, Hollings nearly shouted, did all the heavy lifting back in 1993 without a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress. Fidelity to that measure had eliminated 77 percent of the deficit already, by his calculation, with the remainder soon to be wiped out whether they adopted a five-year agreement or not. So why on earth would Clinton share any credit with Republicans? Did he remember summoning Democrats to walk the plank for this? How could any president spit on their sacrifice and uphold the party cohesion to survive? Was he running a political charity.
It is an earnest voice, and candid, the voice of a fighter who knows that it is honorable to hold a grudge against a scoundrel. It is the very tone that people always missed in Clinton himself.
Branch is scrupulous in noting his worries about whether he may have gotten too close to his subject. He was right to turn down Clinton’s request that he become a friendly in-house historian, much as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had been for President Kennedy. True, Branch stepped in from the sidelines to assist Clinton with communications that might lead to the bloodless return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti. Branch was a close friend of Aristide. But this is hardly an impediment to accurate reporting, and the narrative of the resolution of the Haiti crisis in 1994 is memorable for one significant detail: the irritation Clinton felt toward Jimmy Carter, which soon turned to gratitude for Carter’s role in assuring the exiled president’s safe passage home.
In commoner exchanges over Clinton’s work as president, a conventional note of pride of association clouds Branch’s judgment only once. He is greatly concerned in 1997 that Clinton should do more than promise (in a dozen insipid variations) a “bridge to the twenty-first century.” In the end, Branch gets one of his own sentences into the second inaugural: “Guided by the ancient vision of a promised land, let us set our sights upon a land of new promise.” Looking at it now, he must recognize that it could pass for a sentence spoken by Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan.
The last hundred pages are the best of The Clinton Tapes. Maybe Clinton in his final year in office spoke more easily; in any case, the narrative has a sharper focus now, and the anecdotes fall into a characteristic rhythm:
The president was eating a bowl of bran in January. He said Bob Squier, the campaign consultant, never had a colonoscopy in his life. They diagnosed him six months ago, and he died today at sixty-five. The end comes on quickly if you don’t catch it early. “I always eat bran when a friend dies of colon cancer,” Clinton said.
Two subjects dominate the last several interviews: the conclusion of the impeachment and the Camp David negotiations on Palestine between Ehud Barak and Arafat. Clinton seems to have been more optimistic about his chances for acquittal than about the possibility of brokering an honest peace between Israel and Palestine. In July 2000, he is unusually reluctant, for reasons that are obscure, to speak at all about the negotiations. The reason may lie partly in accusations of anti-Semitism suffered a few months earlier by Hillary Clinton in her Senate campaign. Such pressures work in complex ways; and the want of analysis by Branch is disappointing; but he gives enough material for others to work on.
As far back as Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to become prime minister in 1996, Clinton had been fearful of the mixing of the politics of the United States and Israel; in February of that year, he spoke of Netanyahu as someone who opposed the peace alliance on both sides of the Atlantic. While he legitimately attacked Peres in the Israeli campaign—emphasizing the danger of potential concessions to Syria—his Likud agents in the United States joined Republicans eager to stir up suspicions against Clinton’s Middle East diplomacy…. [Clinton] called it scandalous electioneering by and with a foreign political party.
Branch’s account of the fraying negotiations between Barak and Arafat contains an unexpected comment by Clinton about his final attempt to get an agreement in December 2000. Clinton put forward his proposal for a deal—accepted by Israel, rejected by Arafat—which would give “94–96” percent of the West Bank to the new Palestinian state. A generous offer, irrationally spurned, it might appear, yet Clinton came to think in retrospect that Barak misplayed it. Who could say for sure, because the signals were so coded and circumscribed on all three sides? Still, those last terms presented by Clinton should have made Barak say no. They were too hard for Israel. They went too far on the territories and Jerusalem. Then perhaps Arafat could say yes to the terms that had made Israel balk. Only then might Barak have closed the deal by changing his mind….
Barak said yes too fast, Clinton feared. He had nothing left to give, and Arafat’s instinct when offered 100 percent was to demand 120…. In all their pirouettes, they should have found a way to let the head of a functioning state make the last concession, or look like it, anyway.
About the aim and object of Clinton’s conduct in the negotiations—at a period that the Gaza onslaught has rendered almost unimaginable—Branch leaves nothing finally clear. It is an exaggeration to say that a map of a country (however autonomous) so checked and split was 100 percent of what Arafat had dared to hope for. Yet Clinton’s perception of the dialectic by which, in a negotiation between unequal powers, the stronger must not be seen either to back off austerely or to jump forward too quickly, shows the acuteness that made his political insight a ponderable force to the end. The unhappy truth is that many of his best thoughts are afterthoughts. It will take a later historian to compare the possible correlations between Clinton’s waning influence as an outgoing president, Hillary Clinton’s campaign in New York, Barak’s late move to rescind his offer of the Golan Heights to Syria, and Arafat’s eventual rejection of the offer of contiguous and substantial territories on the West Bank.
How was Clinton able at once to govern and to observe, with a semblance of detachment, the trial that almost drove him out of the presidency? A mood of oppression may sometimes be detected in the tapes made during the impeachment; but even then his spirits veer upward to gallows humor and a strange sort of exhilaration. “Surreal” is Branch’s word for the fact that the President’s approval ratings stayed above 60 percent even as impeachment was voted and the argument about details of the charges began to build.
Clinton at this time would say for the record: “I am utterly convinced that history will vindicate me, and will record that my opponents have damaged the country.” Truer to the man and his love of the game is an incident that makes the most memorable tableau in the book. Clinton is talking on the phone, hearing that his approval ratings have stayed high, and proclaiming his “merry wish to keep the impeachment trial going another month.” But why? Heavy contributions from small donors are coming to the Democratic Party as never before; Clinton continues on the phone with the DNC chair, Steve Grossman, and remarks on the side to Branch: “I will be very surprised, and crushed, if we do not win the House of Representatives in 2000.”
In his last sessions, Bill Clinton wished that Al Gore had waged a less decorous campaign in 2000, and not run away from Clinton’s record. His view here is self-serving but also canny. Had he been allowed to campaign for Gore, he might indeed have helped him to win New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He also shared the common judgment that Gore was wrong to let his people concentrate on a few disputed jurisdictions in Florida; a recount of the legal votes in the entire state would have carried a surer mark of conviction. Speaking on November 27, 2000, Clinton asserted his view that the US Supreme Court would do anything it could to help Bush. He wasn’t sure how the justices could get a legal foothold, but he said they were political enough to engineer a conservative president in order to perpetuate justices like themselves…. In summary, President Clinton said all the major institutional forces were lined up behind Bush, except for the Florida Supreme Court. He specifically included the media. Therefore, it would be very difficult for Gore to win.
This prediction Branch calls “prophetic.” It was certainly correct in its estimate of the alignment of forces and in its inference of the result.