Taylor Branch’s ‘Clinton Tapes’ records a remarkable history

By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
Published Tuesday, September 29, 2009

St. Petersburg TimesWhat happens when historian meets man prodigiously hungry to make history? • In the case of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch and former President Bill Clinton, the result is The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President. • Branch, who will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24, is best known for his trilogy of books about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge. The first of those books won him the Pulitzer for history, and all three are traditional historical works: thoroughly researched, based upon many sources and voices, carefully structured. • The Clinton Tapes is something else entirely, although no less valuable as a contribution to American history. It is essentially one man’s voice, speaking about events as they happen, and the book is almost chaotic in its enormous range of subject matter — a chaos that in the end helps to make it a unique reflection of the experience of the presidency.

Branch came to record the tapes of the title in an unusual fashion. He and Clinton had been idealistic young friends and colleagues in 1972, when they worked together in Texas on George McGovern’s presidential campaign (along with Hillary Rodham, she and Clinton then “fresh sweethearts”). They hadn’t seen each other since, as Clinton pursued his political career and Branch turned to journalism and history.

He was writing one of his King books when Clinton was elected in 1992. Branch was surprised but delighted to be summoned to help the team writing the president’s inaugural address; later, Clinton asked Branch to help him clarify his idea to have a sort of in-house historian for his presidency.

‘I need questions’

Clinton wanted to create a private record to use after his administration, for writing his memoirs and for his presidential library. He told Branch, “I can’t just sit down and talk into a tape recorder. . . . I need questions. I need somebody responding to me.”

The result, beginning nine months into Clinton’s first term, was Branch’s unique role as personal presidential historian. He would be called to the White House from his Maryland home whenever Clinton had time, usually late at night — “My only regret is that I have to sleep so much. . . . I’d like to be awake all the time,” the president tells him at one point. Branch would arrive with a log of recent events gathered from news stories, a notebook with a list of questions, and two tape recorders. The two would talk, often for hours, about an astonishing array of subjects.

They met 79 times between 1993 and 2001. Clinton kept all the tapes (in his sock drawer, Branch reports), but on the drive home Branch would dictate his own notes about their conversation — the material that became this book. “Here by design was raw material for future history, which filled me with excitement to preserve my own fresh but fleeting witness,” he writes in the first chapter.

Branch makes the interesting choice to present the notes in what seems to be something close to that raw state. He could have turned this voluminous mass of material into a shapelier, more focused book (or books) about anything from Clinton’s Middle East peace efforts to his struggle to get more recognition for his administration’s substance than its scandals.

But Branch’s choice to present the sessions in chronological order, in all their multifaceted, sometimes maddening complexity, creates a sense of the headlong rush of events that a president must cope with, like it or not. Just to pick a random example, in a single session on Feb. 16, 1994, Clinton discussed in detail crises in Bosnia and North Korea, trips to Russia and Switzerland, the state of Mideast peace talks and the Japanese economy, the progress (or not) of his balanced budget and health care initiatives, the possibility of invading Haiti and the economic imperatives of college basketball in Arkansas.

Presenting the material this way paints a vivid picture of Clinton’s amazing, in-depth command of a huge number of subjects. Whatever your opinion of his presidency might be, Branch shows us a man of impressive intellect and wide-ranging mastery.

Although Branch describes a few unguarded moments, the Bill Clinton who emerges is not the private man. Even in his jeans and T-shirt, scarfing down bean dip smuggled from the living quarters refrigerator and chatting about his golf game, Clinton knows he is speaking for history when he talks into Branch’s microphones.

Scandal and aftermath

Yes, Branch asks him about the Monica Lewinsky scandal after it breaks; no, Clinton reveals no prurient details. But what is revealed about the scandal’s impact is fascinating: how certain Clinton seemed to be that the attempt to impeach and convict him would fail, both on constitutional grounds and because his approval ratings soared even as Republicans attacked him.

He was right, and the attacks backfired. In the 1998 midterm elections, the Republicans campaigned behind the drumbeat for impeachment — and lost five seats. The only time in the book Branch says Clinton “giggled” was when he played back “pithy, profane” recorded comments from small donors who, during his trial, donated more to the Democratic National Committee in 19 days than in any previous year of Clinton’s terms.

There are some surprises here, small (Clinton’s jarring first conversation with Elizabeth Taylor at a state dinner) and large (a towering argument between Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore in 2001 over why Gore lost the 2000 election to George W. Bush).

Some of the inside stories behind events are entertaining, like Clinton’s account of the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, to seal the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, drilled Rabin and Arafat to place their left hands on each other’s shoulders as they shook — an effort to prevent Arafat from embracing Rabin in “the customary Arab buss and embrace,” and give Rabin a way to stiff-arm him if he tried it.

But some of the oft-recurring subjects in the book are depressingly familiar — Clinton devotes enormous energy to peace in the Mideast, with only the names of the players different from today’s impasse. Others are ominous, Clinton’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden among them.

Branch makes no pretense in The Clinton Tapes of being an objective observer, standing outside history in order to record it. He is partisan, Clinton’s supporter as well as his friend. But his unique record of the Clinton administration, as well as his fresh perspective on how the presidency functions, will be mined by other historians for years to come.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Festival author

Taylor Branch will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; www.festivalofreading.com.