The Clinton Years, in Clinton’s Words. Sort Of.

By Al Kamen
Monday, September 28, 2009

Washington PostDidn’t get a chance to read Bill Clinton’s 1,000-page autobiography? Not to worry. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch’s new book, “The Clinton Tapes,” based on 79 evening sessions interviewing Clinton during the course of his presidency, goes on sale Tuesday.

Branch, in a multiple role of friend, chronicler, adviser and sounding board, doesn’t have the tapes themselves — Clinton kept those, hiding them in a sock drawer in the White House. Instead, Branch dictated his own recollections and notes into a tape recorder as soon as he left each encounter.

The result is an arresting portrait of the former president and a revealing look at the Clinton years. Branch, an old friend of Clinton’s, focused the interviews — as much as possible — on the events of the day.

Thus we find Clinton holding forth on an extraordinary range of foreign policy issues — Haiti, Bosnia, China and especially the Middle East — and domestic ones — the failed effort at health-care reform, the booming economy, the budget surplus — all the while railing at the news media and hounded by Republican enemies and special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr.

Clinton’s thoughts and stories are revealing and, at times, hilarious. There’s Boris Yeltsin, then the Russian president, staying at Blair House, standing in the predawn hours alone on Pennsylvania Avenue “dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi,” so he could get a pizza, Branch writes. And the next night, Yeltsin, again drunk, slipped away from agents and was eventually discovered in the basement. The alcoholism problem was more serious than most people realized.

Clinton recounted a heated discussion with several Democratic senators over gays in the military. “Suetonius, the Roman historian,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd observed, “lived into the reign of Emperor Hadrian during the 2nd century.” And Suetonius said that Julius Caesar never lived down reports of a youthful affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia so that people mocked Caesar as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” Byrd said homosexuality was a sin and invoked Bible passages in support. The debate continued. “I couldn’t tell,” Clinton said, “whether Teddy Kennedy was going to start giggling or jump out the window.”

The other world leaders — Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein, Jiang Zemin and so on — make their appearances. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad calls after the death of his older son and confides how he “loathed but feared” his exiled brother Rifaat. The ailing Assad was determined to live long enough to train his younger son, Bashar, to run the country.

Then there’s Clinton’s account of his two-hour face-off with his vice president, Al Gore, just after Gore’s 2000 defeat. It was, Clinton said several times, a “surreal” confrontation, and Clinton got “exercised” just recounting it to Branch.

Clinton felt underutilized by the Gore campaign. Gore, Clinton said, felt that Clinton’s scandal-ridden tenure had been an impossible “drag” on his campaign.

“The whole world thinks Gore ran a poor campaign from a strong hand,” Branch writes, summarizing Clinton’s argument. “Yet Gore thinks he had a weak hand because of Clinton, and ran a valiant campaign against impossible odds.” Clinton said he thought Gore “was in Neverland,” perhaps unhinged.

The problem was Gore’s message just didn’t work, Clinton said. Clinton, Branch writes, “cared less how he was portrayed. To gain votes, he would let Gore cut off his ear and mail it to reporter Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, the Monica Lewinsky expert.”

Speaking of Ms. Lewinsky, Clinton didn’t want to talk about the affair, repeating regrets, saying he had “cracked” under pressure. There is, of course, much harsh criticism of some Arkansas state troopers and of Starr.The book is 700 pages long, and Clinton often talks about trade and budget issues and other proven eye-glazers, but Branch, author of “Parting the Waters,” keeps things moving nicely. And with Clinton, who in 1998 compared Osama bin Laden to a transnational James Bond movie villain, it’s hard to have a really dull moment.