The Clinton Tapes is a recounting of author Taylor Branch’s involvement with Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001 as he worked with the President to create a personal history of the presidency. Determined not to repeat the disastrous secret tapings of President Nixon, unable to carve out regular hours for written notes, and convinced that he would find it nearly impossible to speak alone into a tape recorder, Clinton ultimately suggested that his friend Branch visit him in the White House irregularly—usually by quickened summons—to ask him questions about events in his administration, which, in turn, stimulated the President to provide long, extended discussions and stories archived by twin recorders. Branch’s activities were kept as secret as they could be, and the tapes, perceived from the beginning as Clinton’s personal property, were hidden away by Clinton himself in the White House.
Bill Clinton is a one-man carnival—a magician, tightrope walker, juggler, hot-dog-eating contestant and burlesque show.
As Clinton himself proclaimed, “My only regret is that I have to sleep so much.” “I’d like to be awake all the time.”
Every encounter with Clinton becomes a scatter-gun commentary on the entirety of world events, revealing his total political involvement. More than any other President, except, perhaps, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Clinton loved politics, absolutely reveling in the confrontation and compromise necessary for successful political action.
Revved up, President Clinton continued with summaries of two recent trials in the Whitewater investigation. Should I remind him of our intention to save this legally sensitive material for a separate tape? Part of me bridled at censorship…. Arkansas accounted for a minuscule fraction
of the gargantuan losses that ensued across the national by mismanagement, fraud, or outright theft, and a small part of the Arkansas tab bankrupted thrift institutions associated with the Whitewater land development. The current prosecutions, finally, were not about correction or restitution for any of these failures, which fell against the taxpayers. On the contrary,
said Clinton, they were Ken Starr’s attempt to squeeze vulnerable bankers into making some kind of allegation against Clinton, on promise of leniency.
Clinton perceived, in his first term, they he had had some enormous successes, despite the hostility; but it soon became apparent that the Republicans were determined to vote against anything he or the Democrats might propose simply to claim that opposing party had no agenda. Clinton summarizes the polarities of American politics in terms that are terribly disturbing, but appropriate even today:
“Our politics are like Bosnia,” the president observed. Leaders were so tapped in cycles of payback for prior injuries and wrongs, with the press egging on every fight, that it was hard to see any larger context. He seemed blithely philosophical about this position. Then again, he suggested that a Bosnia could be the epitome of politics—if it finally could attain that rare higher plane….
No matter what one thinks of the man, it is nearly impossible to deny, after reading Branch’s book, that Clinton had a large agenda and saw his role in historical terms that related, in his mind, to that higher plane.. One of the most touching moments in this near-encyclopedic commentary is a moment in which, despite the obvious antagonism he must of felt with former President Nixon, Clinton readily admits:
A month ago today, he had received from Nixon a letter about Russia that Clinton called the most brilliant communication on foreign policy to reach him as president. Nothing else came close, he said. It was about planning for a “post-Yeltsin era,” with penetrating studies of political characters and fledgling countries.
One need only compare that magnanimous view with what the President relates of Robert Dole’s and John McCain’s vindictiveness.
Nowhere in the 1994 elections did a Republican incumbent lose for Congress or governor, while Democrats across the country lost eight senators, eight governors, and fifty-five representatives. Republicans gained control of both legislative chambers in the biggest midterm shift since 1946, the year Clinton was born.
The prospects of Obama, accordingly, who has faced the same political negativity, despite his achievements is disheartening, to say the least.
Human nature drove candidates to seek efficiencies and shortcuts by catering to big money. This required callousness over time, even meanness. It was difficult enough to survive. It was hard to keep sight of public purpose, although he insisted that most politicians tried. His voice caught.
And it was so very hard to be progressive and win.
Los Angeles, July 29, 2010