The Clinton Tapes
Bill Clinton reveals much in 79 taped conversations with historian Taylor Branch.
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Careful not to oversell the book, Branch says it “sits somewhere between politics, journalism and history.... I did not try to evaluate Clinton’s version of complex events, and this first-person presentation makes me a participant in a memoir ... gathering testimony from one central actor in American politics.” Clinton’s accounts, Branch adds, “are revealing but not conclusive. If they jar perceptions of Clinton or his presidency, healthy debate among citizens can repair mistakes and dispel even durable myths.”Skip to next paragraph
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What are the most “interesting” revelations, or the most “surprising” stories? The answers depend on the knowledge base, preconceptions, and partisanship quotient of each reader. The best I can do as a reviewer is to share a few examples that are sticking with me after seven days spent consuming Branch’s prose:
- Clinton, often a master practitioner of electoral politics, is able to admire the tactics of George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, his virulent enemies, when they score points at his expense. As Branch observes, Clinton “never begrudged survival or ambition in politicians, whether friend or foe.... He loved politics so much that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats, seemingly because he had a prime seat to examine them in retrospect.” Simultaneously, Clinton views many, probably most, of the Republicans mentioned in the book as cynical opportunists who care about the wealthy rather than the overall national welfare.
- Terribly unbalanced individuals sometimes wield power. Some of Clinton’s accounts of drunken behavior by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin make the US president’s sexual liaison seem almost benign by comparison. Other world leaders are better behaved in public, but some are so doctrinaire that negotiating with them seems like wasted time. The book is crammed with examples of Clinton’s negotiations concerning Haiti, Croatia, Korea, Iraq, Israel, and other global hot spots that will likely depress any reader who worries about killing wars, including those of the genocidal kind.
- It’s a truism that political leaders are human and should be neither completely deified nor demonized. The human element comes through unforgettably as Branch hears about Clinton’s concerns regarding his wife, his daughter, and numerous friends. Branch says Clinton mentioned his affair with Monica Lewinsky a few times, usually in a defensive tone. Once, however, he says, the president spoke with real emotion, explaining that at the time he began his relationship with her he was feeling vulnerable and under attack – and that as a result he had let his guard down.
- Occasionally, Branch is even witness to Clinton’s personal interactions. I found it especially revealing, and touching, that Clinton sometimes placed politics and even honest-to-goodness international diplomacy on the back burner so that he could help Chelsea with her schoolwork and treat her as a loved daughter.