Presidential Confidential: Bill Clinton After Hours

September 25, 2009


Wrestling History With the President

By Taylor Branch
707 pages. Simon & Schuster. $35.

New York TimesIn an interview near the end of his two terms in office Bill Clinton talked about wanting to “demystify the job” of being president. “It is a job,” he declared, and “there’s a lot to be said for showing up every day and trying to push the rock up the hill.” His folksy, down-home style of campaigning and his lackadaisical 2004 memoir “My Life” promoted this accessible view of the presidency, as does “The Clinton Tapes,” a book based on nearly 80 conversations recorded during his years in the White House with his longtime friend Taylor Branch.

This messy, longwinded volume — which is less interesting for its tidbits of news than for its overall picture of a presidency — leaves us with an intimate portrait of the commander in chief hanging out with an old pal, occasionally posing for history, but more often using Mr. Branch as a late-night sounding board and stenographer. Sometimes while multitasking — watching TV, doing crossword puzzles or rearranging his books — the president free-associates, moving from detailed analyses of intractable diplomatic imbroglios to blustering rants against the press, from meandering talk about golf or old grievances to revealing asides about other politicians and foreign leaders, like the Russian president Boris Yeltsin, whom Secret Service agents reportedly found late one night drunk in his underwear looking for a cab on Pennsylvania Avenue so he could get a pizza.

The book depicts Bill and Hillary Clinton as sharing a close, easy domesticity, often mentioning the first lady, dressed in a bathrobe, padding in to chat or review the day with her husband. At the same time the book reinforces the view of many reporters and former administration insiders, who have hailed Mr. Clinton as a brilliant retail politician and masterly policy wonk while contending that his presidency was hobbled at times by his indecisiveness, lack of focus and tendency to lurch from crisis to crisis.

As in a host of earlier books and articles Mr. Clinton emerges in these pages as driven, charismatic, boyish, brainy, self-indulgent, prescient, given to dark moods and yet remarkably resilient and eager to please, a politician riven by contradictions and adept at compartmentalizing different parts of his life, by turns empathetic and profane, defensive and oddly passive. We learn that he wrote the sections of his autobiography dealing with the two terms of his presidency in a startling three months, rather than ask for a deadline extension (which explains why those sections feel so perfunctory and rushed). And we learn that he accepted part of the blame for the failure of health care reform because he felt, in Mr. Branch’s words, that “he had pushed change too rapidly for voters to digest.”

This book grew out of 79 conversations that were taped from 1993 to 2001 at the request of Mr. Clinton, who wanted to create a sort of oral history of his presidency. The author says that Mr. Clinton “alone possesses the tapes and transcripts of our interviews” (for a long time the president kept the tapes in his sock drawer), and Mr. Branch cobbled together this account largely from tapes he dictated to himself after each session. As a result the whole production has a slightly sketchy, out-of-focus feel to it: most of Mr. Clinton’s comments are paraphrased, and Mr. Branch himself acknowledges that his dictated summaries often failed to capture his subject’s “bursting trails of rich language.”

The two men had become friends during the 1972 McGovern campaign, and Mr. Branch — the author of a magisterial three-volume study of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement — seems unsure of his role in these dialogues, sometimes serving as an informal adviser to Mr. Clinton, sometimes playing the role of prompter and historian, sometimes turning into an ingratiating courtier. He does little to place Mr. Clinton’s comments in any sort of historical or political context, but instead focuses on his own give and take with the president.

Mr. Branch reminds us of Mr. Clinton’s broader achievements in office: his deft stewardship of America’s longest economic expansion and the country’s entry into the globalized information age. But he is frustratingly apathetic when it comes to getting Mr. Clinton to shed new light on his administration’s failure to pass health care reform or his successes with welfare reform and deficit reduction. Mr. Branch brings up subjects — like agriculture policy and housing — that few historians or readers care about and devotes pages and pages to Haiti (a special interest of his) while hopping and skipping lightly through uncomfortable matters like Whitewater and impeachment.

But for avid Bubba watchers this book still adds interesting filigree to our already voluminous knowledge of Mr. Clinton. It captures his restless intelligence, his quicksilver moods, his stream-of-consciousness thinking, veering from “personal insight or grand analysis to minute statistical detail.” Mr. Branch observes that it’s “curious — and worrisome — to feel a president so smart grasping for amateur opinions, including mine,” and suggests that the president possessed an “innate curiosity harnessed to a puzzle worker’s compulsion,” stewing over, say, the two men he did not appoint to the Supreme Court — Mario Cuomo and Bruce Babbitt — who preoccupied him “as a mystery or mistake” rather than talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom he did select, because she was “a settled choice.”

On the subject of his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton displays the self-pity so many of his critics have decried. “I think I just cracked,” Mr. Branch quotes him saying.

Mr. Branch adds: “He felt sorry for himself. When this thing started with Lewinsky in 1995, he had gone through a bad run of people dying at the start” — including his mother, his longtime friend and aide Vincent Foster, and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. In addition, Mr. Branch says, the president had had to grapple with “the mean-spirited investigations of him and Hillary and everybody else,” and then the Republicans “ran over him with the ‘Contract With America’ and took the Congress.” He had “just cracked,” Mr. Branch goes on. “He said he could have done worse. He could have blown something up.”

As Mr. Clinton saw it, Mr. Branch says, impeachment demonstrated a failure in political maneuvering on his part: “The vote in the House was lost, he thought, by the time we talked in November. His mistake was assuming that the midterm elections” — of 1998, which saw the Democrats picking up five seats in the House — “washed impeachment away in a tide of public disapproval. Immediately, said the president, he should have sent White House people scrambling to lock in public positions from all the Republicans who recognized impeachment as a political loser. Instead, his complacency allowed the entire GOP leadership to cement an issue of party loyalty.”

Mr. Branch writes that Mr. Clinton called George W. Bush “an empty suit, meaner than his dad” and predicted that the Supreme Court would “do anything it could” to help the Texas governor in the wake of the Florida election stand-off. He also anticipated that Mr. Bush, as president, would want to “lead a charge” against bad guys like Saddam Hussein, whom he said he knew Mr. Bush “wants to take on.”

Though his own administration would fail to take effective pre-emptive action against al Qaeda, Mr. Clinton identified Osama bin Laden to Mr. Branch as a clear and present danger, who, he said, bore an eerie resemblance to the fictional villains in James Bond movies — a transnational presence owing no allegiance to a nation state and endowed, in Mr. Branch’s words, with “enormous private wealth and a network of operatives in many countries, including ours.”

Late in the book Mr. Clinton recounts a two-hour meeting he had with Al Gore after the election of 2000. Mr. Branch says the president had “chafed to be used in a few strategic states” — like Arkansas, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Missouri, where Mr. Gore’s losing margin was small or where Mr. Clinton could have “addressed neglected rural audiences on Gore’s behalf.” Mr. Clinton also felt, Mr. Branch says, that Mr. Gore’s message did not work: “He said Gore won all the little issues and none of the big ones. You did not rise to any themes, he said. You did not run on the environment or the future. You let Bush get away with saying we had squandered our eight years.”

The president “kept telling me their confrontation was surreal,” Mr. Branch goes on. “The whole world thinks Gore ran a poor campaign from a strong hand. Yet Gore thinks he had a weak hand because of Clinton, and ran a valiant campaign against impossible odds.”

Because most of these are Mr. Branch’s words, not Mr. Clinton’s, the reader never feels the force of the president’s convictions — for that matter, is never really sure of how precisely his amanuensis has captured his sentiments. As Mr. Branch himself writes near the end of this volume, whenever Mr. Clinton “decides to open” the tapes and transcripts of the interviews for public research, “I will be exceedingly curious about my own accuracy, being accountable for a faithful record.”

If, as the saying goes, journalism is a rough draft of history, then this book of paraphrased quotations is a very, very rough draft of a rough draft.