‘The Clinton Tapes’ by Taylor Branch

October 4, 2009

Los Angeles Times review by Douglas Brinkley

Los Angeles Times Vice President Al Gore had just lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton was hopping mad. During the frenetic last weeks of the dead-heat campaign, Gore, following bad advice from pollster Stan Greenberg, gave Clinton the pariah treatment. Greenberg was convinced that the name Clinton had become synonymous with sex scandals and impeachment woes. During the October home stretch, Team Gore brutally sidelined Clinton from the Main Game.

“I think you made a mistake not to use me more in the last 10 days,” Clinton chided him after the election. An understandably bitter Gore was in no mood for a finger-wagging I-told-you-so. He turned the tables on his boss, blaming him for not properly screening donors and flat-out lying during the Lewinsky affair. Later, Clinton privately complained to his secret court historian, Taylor Branch, that poor Gore lived in “Neverland.”

Welcome to “The Clinton Tapes,” a weird memoir in which the 42nd president emerges as a self-absorbed political genius and a dazzling player with cunning pragmatism and spot-on observations. Branch — the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. — secretly met with Clinton 79 times between 1992 and 2001. Together they conducted a massive oral history aimed at posterity. Amazingly enough, the Beltway grapevine never discovered the collaborative project. Worried about becoming a Clinton lackey, Branch had convinced himself that conducting these taped interviews was surely a gift to future generations. After his 1992 presidential election, Clinton, it seems, had wanted to maintain a periodic White House diary. However, he was too self-conscious about babbling into a hand-held micro-recorder as Richard Nixon did when gin-drunk. And he worried about the tapes being subpoenaed.

So an unusual deal was struck between Clinton and Branch. The historian would periodically drive, usually at night, from his Baltimore home to the White House and be ushered through West Wing corridors to the second-floor Treaty Room. Branch would then interview the president on tape about current events. Each session lasted around 90 minutes. There was, however, a major ground rule. After each therapy-like session, Branch would hand the cassettes over to Clinton, who personally buried the booty in his White House sock drawer. Sadly, in writing “The Clinton Tapes,” Branch could only paraphrase the ex-president and use his own summary dictation. Amazingly, Branch has never even heard the very tapes used in the book’s title.

For a lesser historian, this skewered arrangement would be quite a handicap. Who wants secondhand Clinton when the Arkansan is on national television regularly talking about himself? But “The Clinton Tapes” proves to be a remarkable read, paying out the huge dividends of history that Branch had hoped for. And as a corollary, Clinton’s long-term reputation is bound to take an upward revisionist spike because of this important publication. Love him or hate him, as Branch makes abundantly clear, Clinton was always on the job. Furthermore, with the advantage of hindsight, Clinton’s anti-deficit crusade looks downright heroic — as does his Herculean effort to bring human rights to Haiti and Africa.

Branch also devotes quite a bit of space to Clinton’s stalwart leadership during the Balkan wars (as well he should). Unlike Clinton’s 2004 autobiography, “My Life” — which ran flat when it came to his presidency — many of Branch’s White House stories are surreal. When Boris Yeltsin visited Washington, D.C., in 1994, for example, he apparently became a menace on the loose. The Secret Service, in fact, told Clinton that the Russian president had escaped Blair House and was drunk, wandering along Pennsylvania Avenue in his underwear searching for pizza. Clearly, Yeltsin had plenty of marbles missing. When Branch asked Clinton what happened, the president simply replied, “He got his pizza.”

The Clinton who emerges here is a kind-hearted finagler, at times even a citadel of fair-mindedness. Not that he didn’t have a devilish side: Branch manages to give Clinton’s shopworn wonkishness a kind of rakish charm. Like a jolly Machiavelli, Clinton realizes that homework and cunning aren’t always enough for history-making stars to align. After the breakdown of summit talks between Syria and Israel in Shepherdstown, W.Va., for example, Clinton matter-of-factly lamented: “The political timing did not fit the diplomatic window.”

Highlights of “The Clinton Tapes” include in-depth analysis of Clinton’s salutary peacekeeping efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and a riveting account of the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist attack (in “My Life,” Clinton downplayed his adroit handling of this crisis for some peculiar reason). Branch helps fill the void. Clinton’s determination to get the bad guys was wolverine fierce; he was relieved when the FBI determined that Islamic thugs weren’t responsible. “If a terrorist group was involved, the president said carefully, he fervently hoped that it was not one affiliated with a foreign government,” Branch writes. “The hand of a government would make this bomb an act of war, rather than a heinous crime, triggering obligations to retaliate.”

When it turned out that the all-American nut job Timothy McVeigh was responsible, Clinton predicted that right-wingers would somehow blame his administration for capitalizing on the tragedy. Sure enough: The GOP turned the public debate around. Was the right wing really that coldhearted? To Clinton, this was proof positive that the conservative movement would stir up “fearful resentment” toward civilian government in coming years without an iota of shame. “Senior members of the Republican Party,” Clinton lamented, “are terrified of their own base.”

Not all of “The Clinton Tapes” is heavy. There are warm anecdotes about Clinton helping daughter Chelsea with homework and snuggling with Hillary in a foyer. (All that is missing is the mistletoe.) For fun, he plays cards with Steven Spielberg and golfs with O.J. Simpson in San Diego (yikes). He busily does a New York Times crossword puzzle, including one on Elvis Presley. Hollywood also gets into Branch’s mix. At one black-tie affair, Clinton sat at the same table as Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. When the brazen Grande Dame Taylor asked whether he had looked at Loren’s breasts, a startled president said no. The actress nodded off his denial as a fat lie. Everybody was copping glances — Clinton succumbed and admitted that he had. “That’s better,” Taylor said, pleased to put the president’s famed disingenuousness in check.

In a helpful “Afterword,” Branch meditates on how the Vietnam era had personally disappointed him about the efficacy of electoral politics. All those ’60s protest rallies, for what? Dead Kennedys and Richard Nixon twice? A disillusioned Branch instead decided to enter journalism, where integrity, he supposed, was easier to come by than in arena politics. Clinton, however, disagreed with Branch’s sideline approach to fixing society. “If you want to solve the world’s big problems,” Clinton told him, “you have to start with fights over who rides first in the motorcade.”

For eight years, Clinton rode first. And even with the distraction of a prolonged impeachment trial, our country benefited from his robust leadership. One of his shrewdest accomplishments, it turns out, was allowing Taylor Branch an Arthur Schlesinger Jr.-like front-row seat at the Washington circus spectacle.

Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University. His most recent book is “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”