Wow–there’s a lot about Bill Clinton’s presidency that I have forgotten. Fortunately, President Clinton threw caution to the wind and recorded a series of clandestine interviews with Taylor Branch over the eight years of his presidency. He approached Branch to ask about his future place in history while still President-Elect, given the state of historical documentation of modern presidencies, and then asked Branch to cooperate in secret meetings to create an oral history of his presidency in the moment. Branch has just published the resulting book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.
The Daily Beast has an article that purports to be a “speed read” of the Clinton tapes with the gossipy parts highlighted, but this roundup looks pretty slipshod to me. Here are my selection of some of the highlights from Branch’s interview on Fresh Air on Monday:
- Bill Clinton reads the footnotes of books. (I’m not surprised, but I’m still impressed.)
- His biggest mistake? Appointing the Special Prosecutor for the Whitewater pseudo-scandal in 1993. (Guess who told him not to, and who warned him about the risks of such a move and the potential to weaken the presidency and mess up the checks and balances and destabilize the U.S. Constitution? Hillary Clinton! Branch says in this interview, “He said that the biggest mistake of his whole presidency was not listening to Hillary.”
- The 1994 loss of congress really stressed Clinton out, and he was “quite bitter” about it. He felt for a while that Americans wanted to be pandered to with foolish politics rather than served well by good policy.
- Branch argues that Clinton was unable to use the Oklahoma City bombing to highlight anti-government right-wing extremism and investigate it, and was outmaneuvered by the new Republican congress which proceeded to hold hearings about alleged abuses by the government that were sympathetic with Timothy McVeigh’s point of view. (I remember these and thought at the time that they were spectacularly weird and disturbing.)
- Clinton’s explanation for the Monica Lewinsky affair: “I was feeling sorry for myself at the time.”
- Branch said that Clinton “was less upset about the impeachment than Hillary was.” Hillary saw it as an assault on the Constitution, whereas Clinton saw it as “nakedly political.”
- Clinton on Al Qaeda: he said that Osama bin Laden had plans to kill him upon his visit to Pakistan. (The CIA had warned him not to go to Pakistan or India.)
- In campaign 2000, Clinton saw John McCain and George W. Bush as “mirror candidates. . . McCain was qualified to be president but had no idea how to run, and that George Bush had very shrewd instincts about how to campaign as a president but was unqualified to hold the office.”
- Branch showed Clinton a copy of the page proofs, and Clinton caught some errors that Branch was able to correct.
Clinton was derided even before his presidency began for being too concerned about his place in history. Branch’s book (and the backstory behind it) suggest that his critics were right that he was thinking about history–but it always struck me as a weird criticism of the man. After all, wouldn’t someone concerned about his place in history be someone who would probably want to make sure he did as much good as possible with the office? (Or at least did as little harm as possible?) As opposed to President “History? We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”
As the evil fictional Prime Minister Francis Urquhart (played by Ian Richardson) used to say in House of Cards, “You might say that. . . I couldn’t possibly comment.”