Bill Session

Sunday Book Review

Published: September 25, 2009

New York TimesAt the beginning of this odd, revealing and often delightful book, we find the newly minted President Bill Clinton in the White House with a group of Democratic senators, debating what to do about gays in the military. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who believes homosexuality is an abomination, launches into a gaseous disquisition on Julius Caesar’s supposed affair with King Nicomedes, which Byrd believes created a perception of weakness that led to the eventual failure of Caesar’s dictatorship. Other senators jump in to disagree, citing all sorts of sexual depravity during the Roman Empire’s long run. The president, rather than refocusing the debate on the executive or legislative options they had, notes that homosexuality had not made God’s “top-10 list of sins,” although bearing false witness and adultery had. This touches off another extensive round of baloney-slinging amongst the senators and their president. “I couldn’t tell,” Clinton later informs Taylor Branch, “whether Teddy Kennedy was going to start giggling or jump out the window.”

There are, as Clinton might say, a blue jillion such anecdotes in “The Clinton Tapes.” They range from heavy-duty insights into the relationship between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to Elizabeth Taylor’s question about whether Clinton has checked out Sophia Loren’s breasts at a state dinner. (Clinton, typically, claims he didn’t inhale, then admits that his gaze had indeed wandered south.) The rowdy, discursive intellectual brilliance of the man is evident on almost every page, and so is the self- indulgence, self-pity and self- destructiveness — the magisterial excessiveness of every sort. Compared with the buttoned-up cool of the Oval Office’s current occupant, Bill Clinton is a one-man carnival — a magician, tightrope walker, juggler, mesmerist, hot-dog-eating contestant and burlesque show. You kind of miss the guy.

Unfortunately, there are some fairly serious structural problems in “The Clinton Tapes” that will dampen the casual reader’s pleasure. The biggest is that every thing in the book is secondhand. We never actually hear Clinton talking, just Branch’s recollections of his eight years of conversations with the president — a secret project that somehow managed to remain secret until now. Clinton controls the tapes. Branch didn’t have the opportunity to listen to them while preparing this book — and Clinton will decide when and if they are made available to the public.

Branch is a historian by trade, and an excellent one, the acclaimed author of a three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. He and Clinton sat down every month or so to record the president’s impressions of what was going on in his presidency; Branch took notes and also recorded his own account of the conversation driving home to Baltimore. Branch scrupulously reminds us about the limitations of this method and will even, at times, include sentences like this one about King Hussein of Jordan’s intervention into the Arab-Israeli peace talks: “Later, in dictation, I regretted my inability to recapture the force of Clinton’s language here.”

This is a frequent, and frustrating, motif. Clinton explodes torrentially over Whitewater or the Republicans in Congress — and Branch is left flailing, summarizing, attempting to recapture the moment. Since these are Branch’s recollections, he tends to dwell on the things he’s interested in — there is far more time spent on Clinton’s policy toward Haiti than on the details of such historic fights as those over Clinton’s 1993 budget plan, or the government shutdown battle of 1995.

Branch is a purposely modest interviewer, allowing the president to set the agenda (and usually letting him off the hook), but he will, at times, interject some sharp analysis. The press, for example, is a constant object of Clintonian tirades — often with good cause, since the news media’s scandal obsession produced a profoundly distorted sense of his presidency. Nothing came of Whitewater. And though the Lewinsky affair is indeed on God’s “top-10 list,” it was surely not an impeachable offense. Clinton sulks about this — Branch finds him wearing a “Trust me, I’m a reporter” T-shirt at Camp David and wonders about the self-pitying passivity: Clinton “treated bad publicity as a scourge to be endured rather than a problem to be dissected, managed, even positively transformed. . . . Unlike President Kennedy, who studiously had charmed reporters, and enjoyed feeding them stories, Clinton usually recoiled.” I wrote about the Clinton administration, favorably and unfavorably, for eight years, and always found this reticence a mystery, especially given the president’s ability to charm.

Branch’s friendship with Clinton does have significant advantages, though. It makes possible a remarkable portrait of White House life. Clinton’s relationship with the first lady seems incredibly strong (Branch even interrupts them when they are smooching, as I did once). And the president is a wildly devoted father, even to the point of having a screaming fight with Al Gore: the vice president wants Clinton to go to Japan to smooth a crisis, but Clinton re fuses because Chelsea needs his help studying for high school midterms. He is often encountered dressed casually, hanging out with his brother-in-law Hugh Rodham, watching college basketball or playing three-dimensional Scrabble. At one point, Clinton crows that he finished a New York Times crossword puzzle with an Elvis theme in nine minutes.

In the end, though, “The Clinton Tapes” will stand as an important work about American political life because of two dominant themes that emerge gradually — one about the man himself and the other about the nature of the current era. Clinton was a president who believed that government could help people live happier, more satisfying lives, and that America could help solve intractable issues like the Middle East crisis. He immersed himself in these issues, worked hard at them. His grasp of details — and his insights into the motivations of others — is breathtaking. As president, he proved a rare combination of fervent politician and devoted policy wonk. Some of my favorite passages in this book describe Clinton’s assessment of other politicians, from Bob Dole to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Early on, the president expresses admiration for David Bonior, one of the leading Democratic opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He expected Bonior’s opposition “to be energetic and effective. Yet he spoke warmly of him. Whatever Nafta’s outcome in Congress, he said, Bonior would move on without rancor to support the president again whenever he could. . . . He lamented that Bonior’s controlled ardor was becoming rare in a political culture given to indulge rather than overcome personal grievances.”

And that is the other great theme of this book: the struggle of a president mostly interested in policy against an opposition party obsessed with regaining power. The Republican efforts to undermine Clinton were rarely substantive and often unscrupulous. The president was impeached not because he committed anything resembling a high crime, but because the effort would cripple him at a moment when he might have gotten something accomplished — his popularity was running at 60 percent or so, the economy was booming. During the Clinton presidency, the Republicans accelerated their slide from a party of responsible conservatives to a party of antigovernment talk-show nihilists. Leaders like Bob Dole were intimidated by bomb-throwers like Newt Gingrich.

Despite all this, Clinton managed to make some real headway with the Republican Congress, especially for the working poor. He accomplished it slowly, persistently, year by year, chivying a couple of hundred million bucks for programs like Head Start or health care for children. The Bill Clinton who emerges here is a master practitioner of an art that is routinely derided — foolishly — these days: he’s an unabashed, unapologetic politician. To the extent that Branch’s portrait of the president rescues politics from ignominy, he has done a real public service; that he has done this while vividly portraying an exuberant American original is cause for joy.

Joe Klein, a columnist for Time magazine, is the author of “Primary Colors” and “The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.”