Journalists write the first draft of history. Bill Clinton provided the second—and subsequent revisions—with his 957-page autobiography, My Life, in 2004. Now we get the footnotes.
Taylor Branch’s thick new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, is the product of more than 80 free-form conversations the Pulitzer-prize-winning author recorded with the former U.S. commander-in-chief during his eight years in office. Intimate, often late-night bull sessions between two old friends (Clinton, Branch and Hillary all worked together on George McGovern’s 1972 Democratic campaign), the semi-regular chats were an effort to capture the details of White House deliberations, crises and victories while they were still fresh. Not so much the period’s great events, as its backstage moments.
Branch’s status as an insider provides fascinating glimpses of a very unimperial presidency—Clinton at the breakfast table in a hoodie and boxer shorts, attended by two butlers; Hillary rummaging through closets in her bathrobe and curlers; a president trying to help his teenage daughter with her English homework (an essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) between phone calls of condolence over the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
And he captured some prescient insights for posterity: “I think this is what the 21st century is going to be about, how freedom will survive all of these pressures where it’s never really been tested,” Clinton says trying to explain a bad vibe he picked up during a 1993 visit to Russia and eastern Europe. “Democracy may make it there. But you begin to feel why patterns of history repeat themselves.” (A pessimism over the new leaders of the former Soviet bloc that seemed to be borne out by a subsequent September 1994 visit to Washington by then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Clinton tells Branch how Secret Service agents, responding to a security alarm in the wee hours, discovered a drunken Yeltsin standing in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, bellowing for a taxi. He apparently wanted a pizza.)
The unscripted chats—Branch suggested topics to jog Clinton’s memory, but the president controlled the conversation—also produced some wicked asides about other world leaders. Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad despised Yasser Arafat as “a bumbling nomad.” France’s François Mitterrand blocked U.S. efforts to lift an international arms embargo on Bosnia with a blunt assessment that a Muslim nation “did not belong” in Europe. And there was Clinton’s own distaste for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the then-United Nations secretary-general; the president felt that the Egyptian diplomat had suckered him into the Somalian mission that resulted in the deaths of 19 Army Rangers, as chronicled in the book and movie Black Hawk Down. Boutros-Ghali “had a hard-on” for Somalian warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, Clinton opined, and hoped the Americans would avenge the deaths of 24 Pakistani UN peacekeepers.
There are also telling moments away from the cameras and microphones. Like the story of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations standing on opposite sides of the White House’s Blue Room in the moments before the official signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, refusing to engage even when vice-president Al Gore tried to jump-start a conversation. And the frantic efforts to preplan the famous handshake between Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat with a resulting gesture—both men placing their left hands on the other’s right shoulder—that looked friendly, but was specifically designed to stop the PLO leader from leaning in for an Arab-style cheek kiss. But just two years later, at another White House ceremony for the signing of an interim peace agreement, the two men sat in the Oval Office joking about one day living in the same neighbourhood, and their shared genetic “cousinship.” When Rabin was felled by an assassin’s bullets in November 1995, Clinton explains how he spent an anxious hour pacing the White House putting green awaiting word on his friend’s fate. When a stone-faced national security adviser strode toward him, he knew, and the U.S. president broke down and wept.
But the book is something well short of an authoritative history. Branch fully acknowledges his own compromised role (the author of a highly regarded three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., he wasn’t just a friend of the president’s, but an occasional speech writer and sometime envoy), and the frustrating limitations of their arrangement. The sessions, the first White House tapes since Watergate, were more monologues than interviews. And many momentous topics were barely broached. A session taped in the early days of the Rwandan genocide captured Clinton’s passing observation that the death toll might be higher than CNN is reporting, but there was no follow-up. (In fact, much of the conversation was devoted to a round of golf the president played with PGA stalwart Raymond Floyd.) Osama bin Laden makes two brief cameo appearances, first mentioned as the mastermind behind the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and later, the author of a plot to kill the president during an East Asian visit in early 2000. (On CIA advice, Clinton cancelled one helicopter foray to a Bangladeshi village. And a decoy plane, painted to resemble Air Force One and empty but for the pilots, was sent ahead to Pakistan to flush out a missile attack. The president landed later in a small, unmarked plane.) But there is little sense of whether Clinton appreciated the looming al-Qaeda threat.
And the scandals that dominated the Clinton years are mostly in the background. Discussions about Whitewater were strictly limited for fear the tapes would fall victim to a Ken Starr subpoena. (Clinton does allow that his decision to acquiesce to political pressure and appoint the special prosecutor early in his first term was the “biggest mistake of his presidency.”) The affair with Monica Lewinsky that led to impeachment proceedings merits only a few short pages. There are details of an angry post-2000 election meeting with Al Gore: the vice-president demanded an explanation for the intern dalliance, but never got it. “There is little to say, Clinton replied, beyond failure and regret.”
Branch himself still clearly struggles to put his friend’s dark side in perspective, likening it to Martin Luther King’s “tension between the public and private morality.” In the great civil rights leader’s case, a guilty conscience over his extramarital affairs “drove him to seek penance in deeds of historic sacrifice,” he writes. But Clinton’s parallel reparations—if they exist—remain unrecorded.
What the reader is left with is that gulf between the great politician—empathetic and engaged like few others—and the private man. It’s a chasm reflected in Clinton’s at once admirable and odd ability to dispassionately rise above the fray, even when the fray is all about him. In February 1995, Branch arrived at the White House to find staffers gearing up to fight “bimbo revelations” in a new biography by Washington Post writer David Maraniss. In his private office, Clinton had an advance copy of the book on his desk, thick with 30 or 40 paperclip-marked pages. Branch asked the president if those were the bits he objected to. No, came the reply, those are the passages I like.