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The Clinton Tapes

Bill Clinton reveals much in 79 taped conversations with historian Taylor Branch.

By Steve Weinberg / September 30, 2009

While president of the United States, Bill Clinton met 79 times with Taylor Branch, a journalist with a penchant for recent American history (as verified by his remarkable three-volume account of the civil rights movement that placed Martin Luther King Jr. at the center.)Only a few people knew that during the 79 sessions, Clinton made audio recordings of almost everything that was said. Branch wrote notes in longhand and later, as he drove home from the White House, spoke aloud everything he could remember into a tape recorder. Clinton used his own recordings while constructing his post-White House memoir, and will apparently allow public access to the recordings next year. Branch relied on his longhand notes and the recordings he made to piece together The Clinton Tapes, a mélange for policy wonks and gossipmongers alike.

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Every page of the 700-plus pages contains gems for readers who care about Clinton’s domestic policy initiatives, negotiations with other heads of state, characterizations of famous men and women, the Bill-Hillary marriage, the president’s sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky, and much, much more.

Despite the compelling material, reading the book constitutes work. The text is not organized by topic, but rather chronologically from Meeting 1 through Meeting 79. The accounts of each meeting mix various topics, so that after digesting a paragraph about complicated Middle East negotiations involving Israel and Syria, readers must jump to a partisan Republican Party attack on Clinton, and then to a detail about the homework of daughter Chelsea..

This is not meant as a criticism so much as a heads-up for readers who decide to dive into this book.

Branch seems like a trustworthy guide not only to Clinton’s actual words, but also to his emotions as he spoke those words. Most of Branch’s editorial comments are respectful of Clinton. But Branch is not afraid to occasionally tell readers that, at a certain moment, Clinton seemed overly tired or a captive of wishful thinking or downright deluded.
Branch was not a blank slate when the sessions began. He and Clinton had become friendly in 1972, and even roomed together for a time, while seeking votes in Texas for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Although Branch and Clinton had not seen each other for 20 years when the White House taping began, they retained a bond that could fairly be termed friendship.


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