Sunday, August 1, 2010

Echo (on Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes)

by Douglas Messerli
Taylor Branch The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009)

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.

Branch, however, also taped records of each meeting and summaries of what the two discussed on his return home to Baltimore, and the contents of this lucid and entertaining book are the result of those recordings rather than a distillation of the tapes themselves, which, although serving as a resource for Clinton’s own memoirs, remain within his library, having not yet been opened to the public.

In that sense, The Clinton Tapes as a book represents less a record of Clinton’s statements as much as it is a memory and evaluation of Clinton’s perceptions and attempts to put himself into an historical context. As much as some readers may find this, accordingly, as a second-hand report of Clinton’s administration, it is all the more enlightening given the personal context in which Branch presents Clinton’s observations and ideas. One might almost describe this work as an autobiographical biography of history. As cumbersome as that may sound, it is in some respects far more revealing, I suggest, than would be Clinton’s comments presented without commentary.

That Branch, the noted historian of Martin Luther King, became involved in this project, was almost an accident. As Branch writes, “Our new venture had started with convenience and a dusty friendship.” He and Clinton had been friends in the South while coming of age in the civil rights movement, but had gone their different ways since 1972. Visiting Baltimore shortly after the 1992 election, Clinton told the Baltimore Sun reporter that he had missed several of the election night celebrants, including “Baltimore novelist Taylor Branch, a long-time friend.” “I’m just sick about it all,” concluded Clinton, “I’ll call him this week some time.”

Clinton did not immediately call, but several friends did, some teasing Branch about being called “a novelist,” others curious about his relationship with the new man in power. Shortly after Thanksgiving someone called from the transition office, suggesting that Clinton wanted to see him and his wife, Christy, and the two drove to Washington on December 7th to attend a dinner at Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s house.

That event, in turn, led to an assignment of Branch to write on the President for Life magazine during inauguration day, coverage the Clinton assistants had accepted. Within a day, Branch was sent to the Blair house to begin the pre-inauguration coverage and, almost before he knew what was happening, was drafted to read and comment on a version of the President’s speech. The president-elect was busy rewriting the first half of the address, while his aides and Branch—he, obviously, “off the record” since he was also reporting for Life—worked until four o’clock in the morning suggesting revisions. The fact that Clinton primarily wrote the speech himself just hours before the beginning ceremonies of Inauguration Day foretells the whirlwind of energy which surrounded Clinton in the years ahead. Only four hours later, notes Branch, “The Blair House foyer crackled with adrenaline…. From a national security briefing, Clinton went by motorcade to Metropolitan AME Church for an inaugural prayer service….”

Indeed, despite the 663 pages that follow, Clinton seems hardly ever to sleep, summoning Branch to him at all hours of the day and night, and, even when was sick or, after a serious injury, propounding on, evaluating, and foretelling major world events, all with the incredible detail that the man’s prodigious memory called up. As New York Times Book Review writer Joe Klein correctly summarized:

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.”

Clinton was also absolutely brilliant, particularly when compared with the slow-minded Bushes on either side of his administration. Each of the numerous conversations Branch recounts are filled with analyses of national and international figures and events: detailed discussions of possible cabinet members are shelved between prescient observations of Palestine and Israeli relationships, accompanied with stunning summaries of the personalities of Arafat, Rabin, Peres, and Syrian president Asad. Evaluations, pro and con, of the North American Free Trade Agreement resolve into comments about Somali warlord General Adid. Precise assessments of the success of UN involvement in Bosnia flow into discussions of the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and summaries of Japanese politics.

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.

Despite all of this presentation of Clinton’s complete immersion in history and politics, however, Branch also reveals very personal aspects of the man, his deep love for and involvement with Hilary (with whom, when she occasionally appears in the middle of their conversations, Clinton takes out time to intimately talk) and his devotion to his daughter Chelsea, for whom, on at least one occasion, he cut the discussions short so that he might help with her homework.

Branch also makes it evident, through Bill and Hilary's brief discussions, that she is just as committed and involved in the political life. Just overhearing some of their conversations as related by Branch, utterly exhausts one. For them love and work are simply inseparable, which helps to explain Hilary’s ability to put aside her husband's painful sexual philandering later in his administration.

Despite Clinton’s apparent unflappability with regard to politics, however, it is clear that he and Hilary were unprepared for the bitter hostility of some press members and the enormous waste of energy and time the Republicans and others devoted to their downfall, particularly with regard to Kenneth Starr’s seemingly interminable investigation into their involvement with the Whitewater scandal, a relationships with was tangential at most. Both Clinton and Branch, in fear that if word got out about their tapes they would be subpoenaed, resisted discussion of either Whitewater or, later on, Monica Lewinsky. But every so often, in his berating of press hostility, Clinton simply could not resist bemoaning the enormous amount of wasted energy, both by others and himself, on what he perceived as trivial issues.

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.

Ultimately, what strikes one in reading this book in 2010 are the similarities between the Democratic administration of Clinton’s first term and that of President Obama’s. Both achieved significant legislation despite the refusal of the Republicans to embrace little but a policy of “no.” We have yet to see the results of the election of 2011, but we can suspect that it will be quite similar to the results of 1994:

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.

Obviously, Obama is not Clinton. He is clearly more conciliatory than Clinton, and hasn’t the lust for politics that Clinton professed. Issues of race also make Obama’s presidency more complex. Despite his evident intelligence and knowledge of political issues, Obama sometimes presents himself as a man of less experience. But the echoes one hears throughout Branch’s book are so strong that they suggest as a country we may never grow out of the Bosnia-like cycle of payback and refusal to participate in true political debate. As Clinton concludes in one of his last sessions with Branch:

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

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