Evan Thomas Reviews Taylor Branch's "The Clinton Tapes"

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Wrestling History With the President

By Taylor Branch

Simon and Schuster. 707 pp. $35

Jack Germond, for many years an insightful political reporter (and author of a memorable memoir, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat"), once expressed to me his regret that prominent elected officials were no longer willing to go out drinking with journalists. The words "off the record" had lost their meaning in post-Watergate Washington, Germond explained, and a politician could not take the chance of truly opening up with a reporter. As a result, journalists and, by extension, voters had less chance to really get to know the men and women in office.

I thought of Germond's remark as I read Taylor Branch's up-close, behind-the-scenes account of the Clinton presidency. Between 1993 and 2001, Branch visited Bill Clinton in the White House 79 times to tape a secret diary. A former journalist and the author of a trilogy about Martin Luther King (the first volume, "Parting the Waters," won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989), Branch had become friendly with Clinton when they worked on George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. After the 1992 election, Clinton asked Branch to be his Arthur Schlesinger, an in-house historian and formal adviser, but Branch begged off, fearing that he would be tagged as more advocate than historian, and because he was still working on his King books.

Nonetheless, Branch agreed to act as an unpaid historical inquisitor at monthly taping sessions at the White House. Those tapes have remained with Clinton; Branch does not quote directly from them for his book. However, late at night, while driving home to Baltimore, Branch would record his recollections of what Clinton had said, along with his own thoughts and impressions. Branch's ruminations became the basis of "The Clinton Tapes" -- which, the author says, the former president urged him to write.

Like the Clinton presidency, Branch's book is promising, often engaging, yet ultimately a little disappointing. Branch had a unique opportunity to observe a president in an open and intimate way, yet the reader -- at least this reader -- cannot help but wonder if he was too close to his subject to write a truly revealing book.

Clinton's capacity for self-pity has been long established, but Branch was clearly taken aback by the president's moaning and ranting about his enemies, especially the news media. In October 1994, as Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution picked up steam, Clinton was so exhausted and depressed that he was falling asleep in midsentence during his interviews with Branch. His friend was disturbed but still concluded that Clinton was a far nobler figure than the scribes who mocked him.

It is possible to sympathize with Clinton. Today, when the mainstream media seems so weakened, we forget how powerful -- and arrogant -- the New York Times and The Washington Post, along with the networks and news magazines, seemed to be in the early and mid-1990s. They were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington in the first few years after the Cold War. The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect.

Clinton was not wrong to be frustrated or to believe that the single greatest mistake of his administration (against the advice of the first lady) was to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Whitewater. He also had the canny insight that Whitewater served as a proxy for what really interested reporters: those rumors of "bimbo eruptions" floated by political enemies and less-than-reliable state troopers.

Given all that, how could Clinton have been so foolish as to take up with a White House intern just as he was turning back the tide of Gingrichism in the fall of 1995? The reader longs for some insight, some Shakespearean narrative to help explain Clinton's self-destructive recklessness. But Branch does not deliver; he merely reports that Clinton said he "just cracked." Branch seems almost too embarrassed to try to find out more. Partly because Clinton did not summon him for several months as the Lewinsky scandal was breaking in the winter of 1998, Branch skips past the drama of the darkest days, when Clinton's presidency seemed to hang in the balance.

By the time Branch catches up during the impeachment phase, Bill and Hillary have reconciled, sort of. (One night in January 1999, during Clinton's Senate trial, Branch is delayed from going to his appointment with the president by a White House usher who has seen the Clintons smooching.)

Branch does report on an angry blowup between Clinton and Vice President Al Gore after Gore lost the 2000 election and blamed Clinton's character defects for voter disillusionment with Democrats. There is also a poignant reminder of Chelsea Clinton's suffering over her father's sex scandal. She was too embarrassed, Branch reports, to be seen with him on campus at Stanford.

As King's biographer, Branch is well versed in navigating the tricky shoals of public and private morality. In his penetrating account, King's greatness was not diminished by his philandering; indeed, Branch shows how his personal guilt drove him to act courageously. Clinton is a different story: his cause less profound, his moral failings more integral to his character. One wishes Branch could have confronted his friend more directly and persistently; he might have more effectively redeemed him. The subtitle of Branch's book is "Wrestling History With the President." Branch should have wrestled with Clinton more forcefully.

Evan Thomas is editor at large at Newsweek magazine and the author of "Robert Kennedy: His Life" and the forthcoming "The War Lovers."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company