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Book Review: The Clinton Tapes

Taylor Branch with Bill and Hillary Clinton

Taylor Branch with Bill and Hillary Clinton

I’m going to start a rating system for the books I review based on the cleanliness of my kitchen.   I hate cleaning and I don’t like to be tied down to a book, especially on the weekends when there is so much to do.  So, I download from audible, strap on my iPhone and start cleaning the kitchen.  The cleanliness of my stove is directly proportional to the quality of the book.

I rate The Clinton Tapes, Wrestling History with the President as 5 sponges.  It’s so engrossing and well written that before I knew what I was doing, I had dismantled the burners and drip pans and wiped everything down twice.

The book, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Taylor Branch, is based on an oral history project initiated by President Bill Clinton in the very early days of his presidency and extending to the months after he left office.  Clinton and Branch kept this project secret from most of the White House staff and met approximately 77 times while Clinton was in office.  The meetings were taped but all copies of those tapes were retained by Clinton in a “safe place” in the White House, which turned out to be his sock drawer.  Branch recorded his own impressions of the meetings on the way home from the White House, sometimes dictating into a recorder at three in the morning from his car.  The audible version of the book features an excerpt of one of these recordings as the opening track.

The project tapes were subsequently used by Clinton as the foundation for his book My Life.  But where that book seemed more like a great beginning chapter, followed by a play by play of events that seemed prompted by a review of his schedules over eight years, Branch gives us the color commentary of the Clinton presidency.  At the start, Branch alerts the reader that he is an FOB, Friend of Bill.  He was Clinton’s roommate in Texas during their campaign for McGovern in Texas and gave advice to Hillary about whether or not to move to Arkansas.  But 20+ years had passed between that time in Texas and Bill’s ascent to the White House.  Clinton probably couldn’t have picked a better historian to help him with this project but this reader always has this relationship in the back of her mind.  Branch liked Bill.  Heck, *everyone* likes Bill.  It’s hard to stay mad at him for too long.

Early on in the Clinton presidency, Bill gets the low down on what the Republicans are about to do to him from Bob Dole.  Dole comes off as a mafia don who pretty much tells him that it’s his party’s intention to obstruct him in any way possible.  Nothing personal.  What’s surprising is Clinton’s reaction to that knowledge.  It’s like he doesn’t quite believe it.  It seems incomprehensible to him that civic duty and responsibility are not core Republican principles.  He adapts but I wondered how he managed in Arkansas all those years.  Eight years as a governor should have given him some experience with dealing with the other party.  But I suppose Washington DC is nothing like Little Rock.  Clinton is brilliant and political but the demands of the job are a little overwhelming at first.  It takes him a good portion of his first term for him to get his political sea legs.

The press plagued Clinton throughout his presidency.  He didn’t understand what motivated them and resisted advice to throw them a bone every now and then.  Branch speculates that Clinton lacked the authoritarian streak that is necessary to keep them in their place.  Sally Quinn comes off as a malicious fabricator of extreme and salacious fantasy.  About Maureen Dowd Clinton quips that she seemed pissed that other people in the world were leading happy and productive lives.  I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure what it was about the Clintons that frosted the media’s crockies but Hillary might have inadvertently stumbled on something close to the truth when she visited with some Chicago Cubs players.  The young multimillionaires were complaining bitterly about the tax increase they were getting under Bill.  She remarked that they seemed to be unaware that they were getting paid so well because the federal government was making conditions for that wealth possible.  They hadn’t made the connection to the common good.

But it is probably this very groundedness in public service that makes Bill and Hillary Clinton both endearing and maddening.  Their focus on their goals is intense and it sometimes allowed them to be blindsided.  Their devotion to one another and their daughter Chelsea borders on the fanatical.  And they are also human, vulnerable and touchy.  Bill is open, gregarious and generous.  He reminds me of a good bartender.  He starts a conversation with you and a dozen other people but when he comes back to you, he hasn’t forgotten anything.  Hillary is shrewder, more wary and funny.  She was his best advisor.  Too bad he didn’t always follow her advice, especially regarding the appointment of the Whitewater special prosecutor.

We get a sense of the other important people in the Clinton administration as well.  Surprisingly, the one cabinet member who may have had the most influence on his presidency and with whom he was least able to persuade with his open nature was Janet Reno.  She and Louis Freeh were perpetual pains in the ass.  Their lack of political acumen undermined him throughout his presidency on many issues but because of the intense media focus on the Republican instigated scandals surrounding the Clintons, he was unable to dismiss them without looking guilty.

Clinton also has regrets.  He didn’t really have a problem with NAFTA, although he knew he was going to lose support from some of his party.  In his overall picture of the world, Mexico wasn’t the problem.  China was and still is.  He fretted over Chinese prison labor and general working conditions there.  But his relationship with the Chinese was strained and something got lost in translation.  In the middle of his presidency, he regretted that he hadn’t yet gone to China.  He thought the Pakistan-Kashmir-India conflict was the most volatile in the world and was stunned by the readiness of the parties involved to start lobbing nukes at one another.  His last unattainable goal, hammering out a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, was undermined by Ariel Sharon.  He came so close it must have been devastating to see all that work come to nothing.

Throughout the book, Branch distills what Clinton learned about the nature of his office and the respective parties. Early on Clinton chides the Democrats for lacking courage.  He rants about the congressmen in safe seats who don’t stand up for party principles while letting their more vulnerable colleagues fall on their swords.  He sees the Republican focus on style and character for the shiny distraction it is from the more serious task of governing.  He finds Bush I to be uninspiring because he doesn’t run on what he believes while Bush II is cold and unprepared while hiding behind a false mask of compassionate conservatism.  His post election meeting with Al Gore shows how much the party itself has been damaged by 8 years of relentless criticism.  “Criticism works”, Clinton remarks early in his first term.  It’s hard for even the insiders to shake it off of themselves.

There’s a message here for the Democratic party.  Clinton’s presidency had a steep learning curve.  He says he would have liked a third term because he was just getting the hang of the job after the second.   But this book allows him to pass on the insights that he started accumulating early on.   It might have been written by Branch but one sees Clinton in it, winking at the reader.

Highly recommended.  Five sponges.

Note: The audible version of the book is abridged.  I’m betting the unabridged hard copy version is even better but don’t expect to get any work done.

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