The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President by Taylor Branch

September 27, 2009

London Sunday Times Online review by Robert Harris

Times OnlineThe story behind this book reads like the plot of a Hollywood movie. It is November 1992. The distinguished American historian Taylor Branch is at home in Baltimore. The telephone rings. Would Branch care to come to a dinner in honour of President-elect Bill Clinton? Branch is mystified. He hasn’t seen Clinton for 20 years — not since they both worked in Texas for George McGovern’s failed presidential campaign. When he arrives he finds, to his astonishment, he has been seated next to Clinton himself. “Can you believe all this?” asks Clinton cheerfully. He then makes his former colleague an offer: will he come to the White House every few weeks to tape Clinton’s private reflections, for the historical record?

It gets better. Because of the risk of subpoena, the existence of the tapes must be kept secret, even from the president’s closest aides. And so, on more than 70 occasions over the next eight years, mostly at night or at weekends, Branch is smuggled into the White House and whisked upstairs to the family’s private apartments, where Clinton — in between watching sports on TV, chewing on an unlit cigar, filling in the New York Times crossword, playing solitaire and taking calls from his cabinet — describes his impressions of events to Branch. At the end of each session Branch gives the tapes to Clinton, who hides them in his sock drawer.

Almost a decade later, Branch has published not the tapes — which were used by Clinton for his memoirs — but, more interestingly, his account of how they were made. The result is an unexpected treasure-trove. Here is Clinton out of hours and off his guard: alarmingly exhausted (“his irises rolled up beneath his eyelids and he would be gone for 10 or 15 seconds”), frail (“I noticed that his hands were especially pale and yellowish, almost jaundiced”), clearly besotted with his wife (“I fidgeted through their mysteriously long embrace”) and yet unable to resist betraying her (Clinton on the Lewinsky scandal: “I think I just cracked”).

As in all good movies, the two main characters make an odd couple. Clinton is the earthy political boss, Branch the cautiously high-minded academic. Once, when the president wants to describe Hillary’s tense mood, he declares she is “tighter than Dick’s hatband”. Branch notes primly: “I didn’t understand the phrase and debated whether to ask.”

Even in the darkest days, Clinton revels in being president. “He loved politics so much,” comments Branch, “that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats, seemingly because he had a prime seat to examine them in retrospect.” He gossips happily about his peers, be they Helmut Kohl (“the only leader Clinton repeatedly labelled smart in our sessions”), John Major (“I kind of like old John, but a lot of people don’t”) or Pope John Paul II (“I sure as hell would hate to be running against him for mayor anywhere”). He has a sneaking respect for Richard Nixon, hailing a recent letter as “the most brilliant communication on foreign policy to reach him as president”.

His most eye-opening story is about Boris Yeltsin, who visits Washington for two days in 1994. On the first night, Clinton is woken before dawn to be told that “secret service agents had discovered Yeltsin alone on Pennsylvania Avenue, dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi. Yeltsin slurred his words in a loud argument with the baffled agents? He wanted a taxi to go for a pizza. I asked what became of the standoff. ‘Well,’ the president said shrugging, ‘he got his pizza’”. The second night Yeltsin slips the leash again. “Eluding security, he made his way down the back stairs into the Blair House basement, where a building guard mistook him for a drunken intruder” and nearly shot him.

Much of the domestic policy in this immensely long book a British reader may wish to skip. Foreign policy is dominated by Israel and Northern Ireland. (“Because of the Irish and the Jews,” laments Clinton, “I’m going to die before my time.”) Indeed, future historians may wonder at the relatively limited attention the American president devotes to China compared to the vast quantities expended on these two tiny states. In the Middle East, Clinton’s efforts come to nothing; in Ireland he enjoys success. He explains vividly the difference in scale of the two problems: “the Middle East is an abscess, Northern Ireland is a scab”, and whereas an abscess “inevitably gets worse without painful but cleansing intervention”, a scab is best left to “heal with time and simple care”.

Hillary emerges from these pages as shrewder, funnier and more vulnerable than her public image suggests. She dislikes Henry Kissinger and describes a dream in which she crushes him with a clever remark. “I always get my revenge in dreams,” she sighs, “but never in real life.” Talking about the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, she observes: “[Dick] Gephardt is an asshole.” Clinton points a warning finger to the tape recorder. “Well, he is,” she says. It is Hillary, alone of Clinton’s advisers, who urges her husband not to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Whitewater scandal — a decision Clinton later bitterly laments as “the biggest mistake of his presidency”.

Needless to say, Branch finds the Lewinsky scandal almost too embarrassing to contemplate — “I could barely stand to read the salacious headlines” — and although Clinton struggles to focus on other subjects during their taping sessions, it clearly dominates his mind. Eventually he reveals that for two years Chelsea has refused to let him visit her at university, “because she had to endure the searing exposure of her father’s sex life”, and does not want him to meet her friends. He keeps “slipping into regret”, records Branch: “I sensed an overriding drift into melancholy.”

Amazingly, after studying the polls, Clinton believed that Al Gore’s best chance of defeating George W Bush in the 2000 election was to pick Hillary as his vice-president: they would win, he assures Branch, “hands down, but I don’t think Al would ever do it”. Too right Al would never do it: Al could barely bring himself even to mention Clinton’s name, never mind put his wife on the ticket. Unable to decide whether he should run on the record of the past eight years or in repudiation of it, Gore proves to be a terrible campaigner. Clinton, reduced to watching him on television, sneers that he comes across as ponderous and harsh, “like Mussolini”, and, when Gore duly loses, the pair hold a bruising two-hour post mortem.

I have seldom read a more compelling account of a leader in power. Clinton was three-quarters of the way to being a great president. He had the penetrating intellect to grasp the most complex problems, the wide reading to put contemporary issues in their historical context (he had a personal library of 8,000 books) and the low political cunning to win elections. What was missing was iron self-discipline — that final quarter, without which the other three are rendered void. I suspect Clinton was too smart not to recognise that he had failed to join the pantheon of great presidents, which perhaps explains why this wonderful book ends on such an elegiac note: “The president turned serious again. He said he knew I wanted to write about the tapes. He hoped I would one day? This moment hung. He had lived the politics. How we wrestled with the history was up to the rest of us.”