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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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38 Responses

  1. 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.

    Hilarious! That’s why there’s no one else like you RD!

    • no offense to our other unique and incomparable posters 🙂

      • No offense taken by me. This is a wonderful review, and it makes me realize again how much I miss the days when we could wake up to snark from RD on a daily basis. We were truly blessed, weren’t we?

  2. RD you are spectacular. I love reading everyone here but you have a special gift.

    I’ve got too much to do, too high a stack of books on deck, and too little time. And I just ordered Branch’s book.

  3. Early on Clinton chides the Democrats for lacking courage.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same…

  4. wonderful review. I am going to have to reserve it from the library because I can not afford to buy it right now. But I am now excited to read it. As compelling as Clinton is in person, I found his book dry. I

  5. Five Sponge Bobs? Oh my…. that MUST be good. LOL.

    Ordering today. My kitchen needs a good cleaning.


  6. Thanks RD!

  7. Have mine on reserve at the library, can’t wait! I use reading as an excuse to avoid housework, among other things. Thanks for the great review!

  8. Have to admit, the last time my house got squeaky clean was listening to the Clinton autobiographies. 😉

  9. If it took Clinton a long time to figure out Washington, is there any hope for Obama!

    • It would have taken less time without the distractions from the Reps.

      • I hope you did not infer any sight to Bill as I feel he was the most talented President of my lifetime. While considering him above all other Presidents, it was my intention to question the navigational skills of lesser Presidents.

  10. Great review, thanks. Love the cleaning metric. Sounds like a must read or listen.

  11. Am reading the Clinton Tapes as we speak—hard copy version. You are right on RD and being a words on paper addict, the written words have a political poetry that I enjoy.

    It is always good to hear from you!

  12. Damn you RD, I’ve ordered the book.

    It looks like the guy/gal from Amazon.com is still swimming across the Atlantic.

    Great review. I can’t wait to get my copy. So far I’ve read ALL the excerpts and reviews I could find.

  13. is there a lot of the wit and wisdom of Hillary in there? Does it contain the times she disagreed with him and whether or not he came to agree with her in hindsight?

  14. Branch wrote extensively about MLK and the civil rights movement.

  15. thanks, I had just ordered it and now I can’t wait til it arrives – great review

  16. From where I sit (eight months unemployed with no relief in sight), the Clinton presidency looks like a lost paradise.

    They’re about to cap the number of holds I can have at the library, so I guess I’d better hurry up.

  17. In other words – “spongeworthy”? I’ll get the book – thank you for this.
    The comment on MoDo was right on the money.

  18. Haha! 5 sponges…
    books as multi-tasking — only in our era, I guess.
    RD, glad you are back. Your voice is a bright spot as ever in odd times.

    ps: The demise of Gourmet Mag!

    It is like the end of all kinds of eras right now or something…

    pss: cleaning. yuck.
    (this is why we all went to school, no?)
    our whole gen just…………


    hugs Conf & Co.

  19. Time magazine issue 10/5/09 has an essay at the back by Nancy Gibbs
    which looks at a different angle to the book- “In the battle between leading the free world and raising his child, guess which won?” Although the tone of the piece is not totally complimentary” there is plenty in the Branch account to remind people why he (Bill) drove them crazy”- it does give him high marks for his job as a parent. Things I was not aware of at the time of his choices regarding Chelsea made for an interesting read.

  20. I have read all of Taylor Branch’s prior works. I’m a fan. He is in a unique position here. Neither an “outsider” nor really an “insider” account. He acknowledges his personal connection and we all must consider his views/handling of information as affected/biased. Often have I wondered what hands were in on the Clinton “autobiography”. Not because he couldnt’ write it by himself. But because it seemed natural that he would engage some others in both the overarching design and some of the “perspective” needed to get it down right. Wonder if that is either Mr. Branch directly or through the “ghostly” intervention of driving some of the interviews on tape. Will the tapes EVER be released? To what degree are they “presidential papers” vs. personal possessions?

  21. RD — I adored your creativity and humor in giving this book review!!!!

    One point you made really highlights why I have not been able to make myself a supporter of Pres 0 — “He sees the Republican focus on style and character for the shiny distraction it is from the more serious task of governing.”

    Makes me wonder what the hell is up with this New Democratic Party where they so obviously now value style and character over substance, experience and general hardwork. The fact that Clinton’s tapes inspired you to MORE hardwork while cleaning your stove and leading to the 5-sponge rating, just reemphasizes this point.

    • Bill Clinton, the president that wasn’t supposed to be. But boy were we lucky he was.

      • “But boy were we lucky he was.”

        What worries me, SoD, is that the only way we can get a good president is through luck.

  22. Great review, RD. My copy arrived last week, and what I’ve read so far blows me away—totally engrossing! I am thankful that I saw Bill at a Hillary rally last year. Love ’em both.

  23. Well, you’ve sold a copy here. I can’t wait.

  24. SNL taking the mickey out of the ONE

  25. I’ve missed you RD !! Hope all is well.

    What are your thoughts about the New Jersey Gov. election?

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