‘Clinton Tapes’ Reveals Presidential Necking, Blowup With Gore

September 28, 2009

Bloomberg News review by Craig Seligman


Every page of “The Clinton Tapes,” the book based on recordings that historian Taylor Branch secretly made with Bill Clinton during his White House years, has a new plum.

Examples: a report of the First Couple “smooching in a doorway”; the name of a body part we all share applied by the First Lady to House minority leader Richard Gephardt. (“‘Well, he is,’ she insisted.”)

Whatever such ephemera lack in historical weight, they suggest the remarkable intimacy of this book; and they help humanize a couple the press got a lot of mileage out of demonizing.

During the partisan frenzy of his impeachment trial, Clinton told Branch, “I’m the only one doing any of the country’s business.” Branch lays out the full range of that business in this fat volume.

His friendship with Clinton dates back to their days as Texas coordinators of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. When Clinton became president, he asked Branch — by then the much-honored biographer of Martin Luther King Jr. — to help him record his impressions. It had to be done in secret, often late at night, since the Nixon tapes that came to light during the Watergate scandal had created obvious hurdles to such a project.

The 79 tapes remained in Clinton’s hands; he drew on them for his memoirs, and they’ll eventually be made public. Branch wrote his book in the first person, using tapes of his own that he made immediately following each session (usually on the drive home to Baltimore), regurgitating everything he could remember.

Sharif v. Musharraf

There’s high drama, like Clinton’s 1999 confrontation with the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, after Pakistani troops invaded Kashmir. Clinton was livid: “Your brinkmanship can set off nuclear exchanges” with India, he rebuked Sharif, who blamed the invasion on the army’s chief of staff, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Surrender would be “worse than war” to Sharif, who warned that he was probably looking at “a choice between ordering a nuclear attack as a patriot or being overthrown as a traitor” by Musharraf — which was what ultimately happened. Clinton called their face-off “his most ferocious encounter in politics — bar none.”

There’s a great deal on brokering the peace in Northern Ireland (Clinton compares Protestant hardliners to “the once universal segregationists who ran the South”), and even more on the bitter failure to produce a similar triumph in the Middle East.

Yeltsin’s Nightmare

There’s comedy: “a major predawn security alarm when Secret Service agents discovered (Boris) Yeltsin alone on Pennsylvania Avenue, dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi.” Clinton did not consider the Russian president a buffoon; he respected him and recognized the political nightmare that communist reactionaries were putting him through.

Perhaps most riveting, there’s an angry two-hour confrontation between Clinton and Vice President Al Gore after the 2000 presidential election. Clinton was convinced that had he been allowed onto the campaign trail he could have delivered Arkansas, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and/or Missouri to Gore and turned around the election.

Gore was raw from his loss and made it clear that he was still seething over Monica Lewinsky. “Clinton exploded … By God, Hillary had a helluva lot more reason to resent Clinton than Gore did.”

Branch Is Flattered

Branch acts as a thoughtful, diffident, amiable guide; he’s extremely flattered to be in on the project but constantly frets as to whether he should be steering the conversation or just recording it. To his credit, he doesn’t maul the often amorphous material by trying to give it too much shape; what he sacrifices in form he more than gains back in immediacy.

Anyone who isn’t a diehard Clinton hater will feel tugs of nostalgia. I experienced a big one when Branch recalled the State of the Union address that Clinton coolly delivered amid the heat of the Lewinsky scandal:

“Every indicator was at a 30-year best — from the lowest unemployment, crime, inflation, and welfare to unrivaled technology and world leadership. The first big applause greeted his announcement that the federal deficit, once bearing an incomprehensibly large 11 zeroes, was now, literally, zero.”

That was a millennium ago — at least.