The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History in the White House
Simon and Schuster, 2009
It’s all there: a drunk Boris Yeltsin, clad only in underwear, yells for a taxi in the middle of the night on Pennsylvania Avenue, explaining to the bewildered Secret Service that he just wanted to get some pizza. Senator Byrd equates allowing gays to openly serve in the military with Caesar’s sinful, bisexual liaisons. Hillary recounts a dream about telling off Henry Kissinger at a dinner party and Chelsea bursts into her father’s study, crestfallen because she cannot fit her essay on Dr Frankenstein onto a single page. We learn of Jacques Chirac’s grandstanding, Jiang Zemin’s intransigence, and John Major’s hopelessness. Gingrich’s rise, Dole’s fall, and Rabin’s assassination, all retold through the words of a great raconteur: William Jefferson Clinton, the last Democrat to win two presidential elections since FDR.
Well, not quite. The Clinton Tapes are a doubly refracted record of those eight years: framed first through the Clinton’s own views on his presidency and then by Taylor Branch, Clinton’s historian-friend, who clandestinely recorded 79 conversations over the two terms. Working at the president’s behest, Branch amassed something approaching a diary in an attempt to give future generations a sense of what it was like to be in the White House in the 90s. Unfortunately, instead of glimpsing Clinton, we get Branch’s recollections of listening to Clinton.
It is no wonder, then, that one recent reviewer called The Clinton Tapes “a curious artifact “. The book is a bizarre piece of history. Some bemoan that all we have are Branch’s notes of the conversations—not the transcripts, let alone the tapes themselves. Others wish Branch had been more of a journalist than a historian, asking tougher questions and directing the conversation rather than letting the president meander, which he does a good deal.
But the tapes will come, eventually. Clinton and Branch agreed that Clinton should be the sole owner of the tapes and, as such, will decide when to release them to his presidential library. Though he recently told the Washington Post that he suspects Clinton will release them “shortly after Hillary retires from active politics “, Branch must know that his book makes the wait for the actual tapes all the more acute. Nevertheless, Tapes gives a previously unseen vision and version of the Clinton odyssey, one that clearly comes from the amazing access Branch enjoyed.
That access stems from the fact that 20 years earlier, he and Clinton had been quite close. In 1972, the George McGovern presidential campaign dispatched the young southerners to Texas to coordinate the Democratic Party’s efforts there. Branch and Clinton lived and worked together for months, parting ways after McGovern’s disastrous defeat. The two men would not reconnect until Clinton’s election two decades later.
By then, Branch had written the first volume of an epic, gut-wrenching, three-volume history of Martin Luther King, Jr, for which he had won the Pulitzer Prize. (Indeed, it is that book that had such a profound effect  on the current US president.) Since their time in Texas, then, Branch had written a book worthy of its subject and Clinton had become a subject worthy of a book.
While it is reasonable to regret the losses of translation, Branch’s treatment of the Clinton presidency is worth the read in its own right. For what he gives us is a rollicking and at times penetrating account of a president attempting to heal the world’s wounds at the end of its bloodiest century, to shield himself from vicious opposition and an unforgiving press, and to struggle against his own frailty.
Over a dense 672 pages, Branch’s access and Clinton’s candor combine to create a much-needed corrective to the myths that still plague the Clinton presidency. Perhaps most importantly, Branch reveals a president who prefers to embrace fights, rather than avoid them: Clinton invaded Haiti when only eight percent of the country approved; he bailed out Mexico and Indonesia when the American people were overwhelmingly against it; and he eliminated the deficit for the first time in 50 years. Plus, he did most of it in the face of a Republican Congress so irresponsible that they were willing to play chicken with the federal debt and shut down the federal government, even if it meant closing veterans’ hospitals and radically curtailing income for the elderly. Clinton even thumbed his nose at the gun lobby by passing an assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill—a fight that his Democratic successor has studiously avoided so far.
Branch’s time with Clinton also pokes holes in the swirling misconceptions that surround Clinton’s family life. The two mens’ conversations, most of which occurred late at night, were repeatedly interrupted by staffers, cabinet secretaries, and the president’s family. These moments prove telling: Branch presents a father who is fiercely devoted to his only child and a marriage that is closer to an intimate romance than a crude partnership of ambition and convenience.
Branch also delivers a more nuanced perspective on Clinton’s political skill than we’ve seen. While his uncanny grasp of policy is well-documented, Clinton’s preternatural ability to dissect the motivations and tactics of his fellow heads-of-state is not. Over the years, Clinton developed friendships with world leaders that served him well as he forged a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, helped halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and presided over a power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland. Clinton’s impressions of Rabin, Assad, Arafat, Zemin, Blair, and Yeltsin are perhaps the most engrossing passages in the book; we marvel with Branch as Clinton analyzes the domestic pressures and personality quirks that shape these leaders’ attitudes and actions.
Clinton’s statements on fellow American politicians are similarly insightful and amusing. Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, elected in 1998, is so mean he alienates other Republicans: “I tried to work with him a couple times and he just sent shivers up my spine”, Clinton recalls in a prediction confirmed by Bunning’s planned (some would say, forced) retirement in 2010. In a prelude to last year’s presidential race, Clinton told Branch in 2000 that the John McCain “might make a good president, but he had no idea how to run”. Bob Dole is “wooden”, Harry Reid “the most underrated man in the Senate”, and George W. Bush is “meaner than his dad” and “unqualified” to be president.
Clinton’s insights into foreign policy are equally prophetic—he fears Russia will slide back into authoritarianism if Yeltsin is defeated, and agonizes over the possibility of democracy in more moderate Islamic countries like Turkey and Indonesia in hopes that they might counteract the more fundamentalist elements that threaten Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. Clinton’s attempts at brokering a peace in the Middle East come across as relentless, even heroic.
Sympathetic, The Clinton Tapes might be. Hagiographic, it is not. Tapes is far more critical than Arthur Schlesinger’s royalist write-up of JFK or Edmund Morris’ sycophantic (and at times fictional) tribute to Reagan, both of which sprung from similar access to the Oval Office. We wince with Branch as he displays Clinton’s remarkable capacity for—and repeated lapse into—self-pity, and we feel Branch’s disappointment in Clinton for giving salacious fodder to his political enemies and a prurient press by having an affair in the White House.
Yet, the struggles of Clinton’s presidency, rather than his personal flaws, are what worry the reader. The scrutiny and shortcomings of Clinton’s personal life are no longer a matter of national discussion, but the global fights that characterized his presidency never left. Indeed, they have intensified over the last decade and have every indication of dominating the next: while Northern Ireland and Bosnia enjoy relative tranquility, peace in the Middle East remains elusive. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism has reached the United States and beyond. Inequality and inefficiency plague American healthcare and gun violence continues to claim too many US citizens.
Tapes, then, is both prologue and preview of what Barack Obama’s years in office might look like, minus—we can only hope—the scandals.
Andrew Hammond  is reading for an MPhil in Comparative Social Policy at St John’s College. He is the Executive Editor of the Oxonian Review. He is writing his thesis on the politics of welfare reform under Clinton and Blair.