Bill Clinton acted on principle far more often than you may think.
Let me start with a disclaimer. I used to live with Taylor Branch, the author of this interesting and essential book for understanding the Clinton years. This sounds more intimate than it was: For about a year and a half in the mid-1980s, I was an au pair for Branch and his wife, Christy, when they lived in the then (very!) un-gentrified Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. We got along well enough, but I wasn’t a very good au pair, being more interested in my nascent career and going out than in performing anything more than the most minimal child-care duties. We’ve seen each other only a handful of times since.
At the time, Branch was busy writing the first of the three books of his trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. While he would win the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards, he didn’t have much money (my room cost me $175 a month, low even by the standards of the time). But he had a discipline I always wish I had as a writer. If memory serves me, each morning Branch would rise at five a.m., if not earlier, and retreat to an office he’d built on the top floor of their row house. He’d work on his Kaypro, a bulky, corrugated-steel device said to be the first portable computer, but only because the behemoth had a handle on the top. Branch would take a break to get his kids out the door and then diligently work until 5 p.m., having dinner with his family. Maybe he’d get more work done in the evenings, except for when he sang with the choir in the nearby All Souls Unitarian church. And then he would start all over again.
That discipline served Branch well when he began this unusual project. As you probably know by now, Branch and Bill Clinton had 79 interviews during the course of the Clinton presidency. The two had met during the 1972 McGovern campaign, where they both worked in Texas, but they did not stay close afterward, by Branch’s account and my own memory. Branch was more interested in changing the world with his pen; Clinton sought higher office. They reunited shortly after the 1992 campaign and became close again. While President Clinton proposed making Branch an in-house historian, the Georgia-bred writer resisted the idea and came up with this interview scheme. They were taped, but Clinton kept the tapes after each session, using two recorders for back up. Branch would drive home to Baltimore and, in an act that would probably turn vehicle-safety advocates apoplectic, record every detail he could remember about the interview as he drove. Since this was Bill Clinton, the sessions often began late at night, and Branch, who was continuing to work on the third and final volume of his King biography, would be driving home to Baltimore often well past midnight.
Even after talking to the President, I’m not sure how many writers would have had the discipline or the wherewithal to record so consistently and in such detail. Critics have chided this second-hand account, but what was the alternative? To his credit, Branch isn’t hesitant to say where and when he can’t remember some particular wording. Nor does he hide his mistakes. A friend and counselor in their talks as much as an interviewer, Branch offers up plenty of bad advice–urging Clinton to dump “the middle-class Bill of Rights” from a speech when it proves to be popular.
Like a lot of people in Clintonland–I covered the Clinton White House for several magazines, including The New Republic, where I wrote the “White House Watch” column–I was aware that Branch was around the White House a lot, but I had assumed it was either to write a book about Clinton, help with his official memoirs, or simply as an F.O.B. the now little-used acronym for Friends of Bill. I hadn’t realized that they were off-the-record conversations, and most people in the White House didn’t either. The project was kept remarkably secret, especially given all the investigations of Clinton.
The candor engendered by this off-the-record agreement is illuminating, but not startling. We knew Bill Clinton was angry at the press and the Republicans and the scandalmongers, and here we see it in fuller detail. We knew he was a late-night work horse, and we see that, too. At one point, Clinton well past midnight, is in sweats, carrying a bowl of bean dip in one hand and chips in the other. He falls asleep in a barber’s chair. He rants like Lear. He’s often wrestling with allergies as much as he is history. And he’s brilliant, offering smart takes on everyone from Sam Nunn to Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Clinton Tapes is more than just a portrait of a president in real time. It is a stark reminder of other facets of Washington life that haven’t changed since the Clinton era, particularly the capacities of a right-wing message machine and a unified GOP bloc in Congress. It may be less potent than it was in the days of Whitewater, but it certainly still exists. The book also reminds us of the sheer limits faced by Democratic presidents who must clean up after Republican messes and try to corral their own atomized party. The insights here are as useful for understanding the Obama years as they are the Clinton years, and one hopes David Axelrod or others around the President find the time to thumb through a copy.
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