Taylor Branch, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President"

clintontapesWow–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:

  1. Bill Clinton reads the footnotes of books.  (I’m not surprised, but I’m still impressed.)
  2. 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.” 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. Clinton’s explanation for the Monica Lewinsky affair:  “I was feeling sorry for myself at the time.”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.”
  9. 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.”

0 thoughts on “Taylor Branch, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President"

  1. Regarding this book, the newest edition of Time has an essay about Bill as a father in the White House that is exceedingly complimentary. It talks about Bill nixing a trip to Japan, over Al Gore’s objections and subsequent anger, because Chelsea had exams and he didn’t want to leave her alone.

    I always admired the Clintons as parents; this just affirms how hard they worked at it.


  2. Branch says in this interview, “He said that the biggest mistake of his whole presidency was not listening to Hillary.”

    Interesting. I always thought–and still do–that Hillary is substantially more intellectually capable than Bill, although he has a better intuitive grasp of politics.


  3. As I understand it, though, Clinton controls the tapes of the interviews themselves and Branch wrote the book without access to them. However much that may matter. My memory, especially the details of conversations, wouldn’t have been up to the task. I think we won’t be seeing any Edmund Morris-style biographies as of Reagan, i.e., Clinton chatting with Ordovician dinosaurs while visiting Badlands National Park or anything like that!

    Hillary definitely has more of the total mental-electron package, and Bill more of the intuitive stuff. I keep trying to imagine their first encounter at the Yale Law orientation meet-and-greet!


  4. cgeye–thanks for the correction!

    Bill Clinton is super-smart too, but 2 brains are often better than one. Yes, she had a better long-term sense of how the special prosecutor law could hurt the president and the presidency. His political instincts were off on that issue.


  5. “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.”

    Um — That does seem to be true, no?


  6. GayProf: well, yes! Duh. This is still America, ain’t it? I think what Branch was talking about is the notable collapse of Clinton’s optimism and faith in the American people. He says that Clinton toyed with offering a “Middle-Class Bill of Rights” to counter the Contract with America agenda, and even asked Branch his opinion about this. But Branch warned him that a “bill of rights” should be for all people, not just middle-class people, so the scheme was dropped.

    Fortunately for Clinton, Gingrich’s pinnacle of leadership was in fact the election of ’94, and Gingrich spent all of 1995 and 1996 making Donald Duck look like a serious and sober leader by comparison. So although the American people definintely love them some pandering, I actually think their B.S. detectors are sometimes dialed in to the right frequency. You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, . . . as the old saying goes.


  7. cgeye–your first comment got held in moderation, and I just now found it. Yes, I thought that article about the little plum that has been handed to Senator No-Votes was very interesting when I saw it in my print edition this morning. Why does he have so many powerful people working for him? I just don’t get it. He’s like Condoleeza Rice with his skills in cultivating the rich and powerful and getting them to give him awesome jobs in which he has zero previous experience.

    It looks like the White House is working hard to make sure that Bennet stays in the Senate. I just wish they were so intent on making real health care reform happen, instead of passing an underfunded mandate to purchase insurance from private companies.


  8. I remember hating Bill Clinton back in the 90s, when I was a staunch Republican. My view of him now is more favorable, or at least less unfavorable.

    My memory was that after Oklahoma City Clinton and most Democrats tried to smear Republicans by associating them with anti-government extremists, and that there was a push for a bill that sort of foreshadowed the Patriot Act in terms of expanding government surveillance powers. On the other hand, my memory of what happened is still skewed by my political views of the time.


  9. It’s interesting, isn’t it, when one’s memory starts to compete with the historical record? One of the things that was so interesting to hear about in Branch’s interview the other night was the relentless and aggressive questioning of Clinton’s legitimacy as president, which started even before he was inaugurated. People who think Obama has been subjected to unusual, nastier, and/or more virulent attacks on his character and legitimacy really should pick up this book.

    When Congress refused to renew the special prosecutor law (either late in the Clinton presidency or early in Bush II’s first term), and then with the return of the imperial presidency under Bush II and Cheney (and the post-9/11 era), I think I just kind of forgot about the possibility that a sitting president might be deposed or sued over pre-presidential matters. But, that’s exactly what happened, courtesy of the Special Prosecutor, the U.S. Supreme Court, and Paula Jones…

    Bill Clinton was a very good conservative president, Paul–I don’t know what you might complain about! 🙂


  10. And how the frak does a Senator get a Presidential endorsement *11 months* before his primary — when one and only one candidate has stepped up to challenge him? When he’s done jack-shite for legislation or constituent service?

    I thought Obama respected the democratic process that includes primaries, and that he regretted how so many pundits made their decisions to support Clinton so early on. It’s all different once one wins, innit?


  11. cgeye–I don’t begrudge the President the right to put his thumb on the scales if he wants to. (One wishes he were more interested in hosing Republicans rather than fellow Dems, but wev.)

    The thing I really, totally, and completely don’t understand at all is, why Bennet? Does he have some massive scandal files on Phil Anschutz, Bill Ritter, and Barack Obama? Who’s he connected to that they fear? Why all of this loving Affirmative Action for a man who has yet to do anything independent with his blessings and talents?


  12. I found your blog while searching for some information about David Lane in relation to the McVeigh trial. I tried adding a trackback ping from my latest blog to yours about Lane but may not have succeeded, as I’m not using WordPress and haven’t done it before.

    But to Oklahoma City and McVeigh: my understanding of the militia movement that produced him is definitely shaped by Joel Dyer’s excellent series Harvest of Rage in the Boulder Weekly in the 90s. I see he turned it into a book that I need to pick up some day. I tried to find the original series without immediate success.

    Though I don’t recall the specific hearings you mention, I think it was probably wise for the government to at least give the appearance of looking more deeply into both Ruby Ridge and Waco as a means to defuse further attacks. I don’t see evil intent by the government in either incident. My understanding at Waco is there was evidence of child abuse and after 51 days, something had to be done for the children inside who were essentially hostages. It might be useful to look at Waco in light of the Beslan school hostage crisis too. I can see an equally good argument that we should have staged a rescure attempt at Waco almost immediately.

    Ultimately the most paranoid and dangerous militants will never be appeased, but if the hearings help keep some people from reaching that stage of paranoia, they probably served some good.

    And speaking of paranoia and the Clintons… Last summer about a week before the Democratic convention opened, I witnessed a young man in his 20s walking down the 16th Street mall in downtown Denver shouting a warning that was almost pure gibberish about how “Hillary Clinton’s forces have already taken out the Al-Qaeda operatives in Denver, and now she is running this show.” It was an exceptionally hot day and I wondered if maybe the heat had gotten to him. That he wore a shirt around his head like a turban didn’t make me feel a lot better about the encounter, such as it was. The scary thing was that he looked just a little like McVeigh.


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