Monday, 12 October 2009

“The Clinton Tapes”, by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster)

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A glimpse into the mind of a sitting President

In The Clinton Tapes, Taylor Branch has produced perhaps the most interesting book on the Clinton presidency (not to mention the man himself) thus far. Through a series of 79 late-night one-on-one interviews, Branch and Clinton recorded hours and hours of candid and honest discussion about issues that were troubling the President or just taking up his time.

Having once shared a flat with the Clintons while working on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, Branch shares some history with Bill, but was nevertheless surprised when the newly elected President approached him to take the post of his personal historian – or the new Arthur Schlesinger (perhaps America’s most famous and successful presidential historian). While the invitation certainly held its positives, Branch felt that their shared history would compromise the project:

“from the start, I would be considered partial to Clinton as his political colleague from long ago, and no ‘court history’ by me could earn much credit for either of us.”

Therefore, in order to avoid this situation, Branch agreed instead to share frequent one-on-one, contemporaneous interviews and conversations with the president, leaving all tapes with the President (who actually stored the tapes in his sock drawer) to do with as he saw fit. The tapes were intended to provide future historians with as honest, candid and unvarnished accounts of Clinton’s thinking as possible, while avoiding all the sticky legal issues that confronted former presidents with a penchant for recording things (Nixon, for example…) or keeping a diary.

Branch didn’t quite manage to avoid the semblance of partiality he was so concerned about when first offered the job. This book is quite clearly pro-Clinton. However, Branch does make no bones about this, accepting this as probably colouring his view and portrayal of his old friend and colleague. Equally, the author accepts that this is not a history per se, nor really a memoir, as it draws almost exclusively from a single perspective. The author believes this book is “a preview in close witness” to whatever might become of the Clinton tapes themselves. Clinton’s “stories enjoy the benefits of privacy, immediacy, and control, but not hindsight. They are revealing but not conclusive.” Despite this, The Clinton Tapes is easily one of the most interesting books on any American president I have ever read (and I’ve read rather a lot).

The range of topics the two friends covered is broad and wide-ranging. From politics to personal topics, Branch and Clinton managed to cover all the most important things in both the President’s life and also his job: the US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo; the troubles of Supreme Court candidates; his difficulties in forming a connection with Jiang Zemin; a single oral history of Clinton’s recollections and feelings on the Whitewater investigation; his affair with Lewinsky (“I think I just cracked”), which was so frustrating for Branch; Boris Yeltsin’s drunken visit to the White House and his embarrassing nighttime quest for pizza; Clinton’s thoughts on the 2000 presidential election and his feelings for Al Gore; Osama bin Laden (a particularly interesting and revealing section); among many others.

As a journalist, it is understandable that Branch broached the subject of the Clintons’ relationship with and opinion of the press – it was notoriously poor, with both Clintons frequently lashing out with hostility towards a press they believed treated them badly, which in turn resulted in poor coverage. The Clinton Branch knew was not the one portrayed in the press, as “most images of Clinton collapsed into formula and hype, however pervasive. They were myths.” Rather, Bill Clinton was far more reflective and intellectually curious than anyone gave him credit for, and far less cynical than accused.

Branch’s prose are fluid and benefit from a journalistic style, making the book both deep and engaging, relatively quick-paced and accessible. While I would perhaps have swapped the order of chapters one and two, the book progresses in a logical and orderly fashion, mirroring somewhat the mindset and conversational style of the author and president’s meetings.

If there is one book on the Clinton Presidency you should own, I think this one just might be it. To compare with a couple of others: John Harris’s The Survivor is great, too, but The Clinton Tapes has great personal input from the subject along with concise context to properly locate events and quotes. Nigel Hamilton’s Mastering the Presidency might be highly detailed, but Branch’s book is far more readable and contains a significant amount of depth and detail while not allowing the reader to drown under the sheer weight of research. The greatest strength of this book is that Clinton’s thoughts were recorded at the time of the events (or near enough), which strips the benefit of much hindsight to colour his recollection.

Branch has retained an eye for accessibility to compliment the considerably ambitious scope of this book. The Clinton Tapes is excellent, and couldn’t come more highly recommended.

Also try: Bill Clinton, My Life (2005); John Harris, The Survivor (2006); David Halberstam, War In a Time of Peace (2003); Joe Klein, The Natural (2003); Sally Bedell Smith, For Love of Politics: The Clintons in the White House (2008); Sidney Blumenthal, The Clinton Wars (2004); George Stephanopolous, All Too Human (2000)

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