The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History in the White House 
by Taylor Branch.
Simon and Schuster, 707 pp., £20, October 2009, 978 1 84737 140 9
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In the final year of the last century, George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s one-time aide and press secretary, published a memoir of his time in the White House entitled All Too Human: A Political Education. Back then, it seemed like a terribly exciting book: 1999 was the year of Clinton’s Senate trial, following his impeachment, and also of the first appearance on US television of The West Wing, which offered the fantasy of a different kind of liberal president. Stephanopoulos made working in Clinton’s West Wing sound thrilling, monstrous, deranged. A group of super-smart men (and one or two women) fought round the clock to pin down their super-smart, hopelessly promiscuous president (promiscuous with his time, his interests, his attention, rather than in the more obvious ways). Speeches got written at the last moment, policy was endlessly being reformulated, old enemies were reached out to while a train of new enemies was picked up along the way. Stephanopoulos describes how important physical proximity to the president was – having your office a few yards nearer to the Oval Office than the next person was crucial – and he lets us know that he got close. This was more like a medieval court than a modern workplace, both deeply hierarchical and frighteningly chaotic. And there at the heart of it was George, fixing, fighting, cajoling, despairing, scheming, outwitting, getting outwitted, and all the time feeding off the power. At one point, our hero (George, not Bill) takes a fancy to Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze’s costar in Dirty Dancing, and he gets his people to sound out her people about whether she fancies a date. Yes she does! He goes to gatherings of Greek-Americans and they crowd round wanting to know when he is going to lift the curse of Dukakis (which says that short Greek men can’t get elected president, because they look ridiculous in tanks). What can George say – who knows?

Well, it turns out that America was due an African-American president before it was due a Greek-American one, something that would have seemed pretty incredible in 1999. Stephanopoulos is now a talk-show host, occasional journalist and, like everyone else, a blogger. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock reading The Clinton Tapes to discover just how little George mattered to Bill during the time when Bill meant so much to George. Stephanopoulos hardly features at all in these write-ups of a series of nearly 80 taped conversations Taylor Branch had with Clinton over the course of his presidency. On the few occasions he does get noticed it is as a minor irritant and something of a buffoon. He gets only one sustained mention, in early 1996, when Bill and Hillary are griping about the torrent of scurrilous journalism that surrounds his presidency and their marriage:

There was no end to it … [Blair] cited a New Yorker essay full of barbed quotes about Hillary from [Sally] Quinn and Elizabeth Dole, the senator’s wife, plus a popular new novel about the 1992 election, Primary Colors. All she knew of that book, said Hillary, was that she cussed like a sailor and was portrayed in a graphic one-night stand with George Stephanopoulos, of all people. Her aggrieved mood dissolved into mirth.

At least Hillary cares enough to laugh. Bill hardly seems bothered.

One of the many striking things to come out of this book is how little interested Clinton seems in the comings and goings of his political staff. The Clinton Tapes gives a view of the presidency as seen from the private quarters (where most of the recordings took place) rather than the West Wing, and it turns out that as seen from the private quarters the West Wing barely registers. Of course, that may have been the point of these conversations, which Clinton set up with his old friend Branch (they had been roommates together while working on George McGovern’s disastrous presidential campaign of 1972) in order to record for posterity a real-time overview of his presidency removed from the hurly-burly of his day-to-day activities. Branch is constantly prodding him to reflect on the weightier challenges that face him, particularly in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, there is enough straying from these topics, as Clinton unburdens himself, often late at night, to give a strong sense of his real preoccupations. It’s true we aren’t provided with verbatim transcripts – Clinton still has those for release one day to his presidential library in Arkansas – but instead a curious, twice-removed version of the conversations, with Branch having to reconstruct what was said from the notes he made at the time. Yet the account he provides is sufficiently artless – full of digressions, long-windedness, false starts and nagging obsessions – to have the ring of authenticity. We get interminable riffs about Clinton’s golf game, which Branch manages to convey were as dull to him as they were gripping for the president, plus frequent discussions of college sports teams, where Branch, as a fellow Southerner, is more suggestible. At moments Clinton rants and rages, at others he becomes tearful, occasionally he gets bored and sometimes he even falls asleep. One memorable exchange, just after he has been trounced in the 1994 midterm elections, begins with Clinton in the White House barber’s chair, exhausted and frequently nodding off mid-sentence, only to rouse himself for a renewed bout of defiance and self-pity before slumping back again. Branch leaves him still talking to himself, and wonders if the president is suffering from narcolepsy, or something worse.

Through all this, a clear picture of Clinton’s passions and priorities emerges. The things he loves are politics, hard data and his family, in roughly that order. The thing he hates is the media, above all newspapers, on which he blames almost all his troubles. His love of politics is not a love of the sort of low-level politicking in which Stephanopoulos and his fellow staffers indulge. Rather, he has an unquenchable fondness for politicians themselves, with all their foibles and all their weaknesses – it is, in other words, a kind of self-love. One of the recurring themes of the book, on which Branch frequently remarks, is Clinton’s indulgent affection for many of his Republican opponents, notwithstanding the fact they spent most of his tenure in the White House trying to destroy him by fair means or foul, mainly foul. ‘Good ol’ Jesse,’ is all Clinton will say of the poisonous, racist Jesse Helms, who has just called him ‘unfit’ to lead the armed forces and warned him to stay away from North Carolina for his own safety. The newspaper obsession with Whitewater drives him mad, but not the Republican desire to capitalise on it, which he entirely understands. This is from 1997:

After a White House parley, he had asked Senator Alan Simpson in confidence whether Republican strategists really believed the Clintons did something terrible in Whitewater, like theft or perjury. He mimicked the hearty response. ‘Oh, hell no,’ cried Simpson. ‘But our goal is to make people think you did, so we can pay you Democrats back for Iran-Contra.’ Clinton chuckled with appreciation. Politicians understood payback.

He dishes out the same kid-glove treatment to Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, even John Major, whom he was meant to despise because of the help the Tories had offered to Republicans trawling for smears during the 1992 election. ‘“I kind of like old John,” Clinton said, “but a lot of people don’t.”’ In fact, Clinton has more kind words to say about Major than he does about Tony Blair, who was perhaps too much of an easy catch for Clinton’s tastes, as well as being a bit squeaky clean. Clinton liked politicians who played dirty because they made him feel better about his own peccadilloes. He also liked anyone who was susceptible to his charms, which was true of many more politicians than it was of newspaper journalists. Most of all, though, what Clinton liked about his Republican opponents was that he was better at politics than they were.

Part of this was luck. Clinton was fortunate in the Republican challengers he faced: George Bush senior, Gingrich and Dole were all hopelessly inadequate to the task of outmanoeuvring such a skilful politician, especially when economic conditions were working in his favour, as they were for Clinton throughout his presidency. There is no denying the skill, however. Gingrich comes closest to proving a worthy opponent, following his triumph in the 1994 midterms, but then he horribly overplays his hand, allowing Clinton to call his bluff during the government shutdown of 1995. One of the pleasures of the book is watching Clinton first grasp, then husband, then exploit and finally drive home the fact that Gingrich has blown it. Clinton consistently comes across as one if not two steps ahead of his rivals, always better informed, always more curious than they are about what might be coming next. At one point in the early stages of the 1996 campaign, Branch asks him ‘whether he focused on the grand strategies or the daily polls and individual states. “All of those,” he replied. “I think about all of those.”’

His appetite for information is insatiable, whatever the subject. When he talks to Branch about technical problems at the Hubble telescope, he knows all the names and functions of the various parts that have gone wrong. In 1997, Bill and Hillary plan a celebration for Chelsea’s 17th birthday, but Hillary is late, so, Branch recounts, ‘Clinton found himself the delighted sole host to a dozen high school girls in raucous discussions of love and the world.’ I know what you’re thinking, and I was thinking the same. But a few pages later we discover what really turned Bill on about the occasion: he used it as an opportunity to give them all a little lecture about the scientific and moral implications of the cloning of Dolly the sheep. This desire to acquire new knowledge and then deploy it never disappears. Branch meets with him in 2001, after he has left the White House, and Clinton expresses some relief at being free from its burdens, but also some regrets. ‘He had been studying these massive power outages in California. They were very complex, but it was basically a case of deregulation wretchedly done. “I could fix that,” he said, slipping into talk of interlocking grids and overtaxed spot markets.’ It is just about possible to imagine another politician talking like this, but surely no one else could have sounded wistful about it. There are moments when his inability to waste any piece of information makes Clinton seem, frankly, a little mad. After Major’s defeat by Blair in the 1997 election, Clinton tells Branch that he still has a soft spot for him, ‘despite their political differences, and remarked oddly that Major seemed to slump forward because the back of his head was square rather than round’. How do you respond to that? Branch doesn’t even try, and instead moves swiftly on to a discussion of Iranian clerical politics, about which, unsurprisingly, Clinton is very well informed.

Yet despite these occasional glimpses of weirdness, what really shines through is Clinton’s distinctive combination of political gifts. He can switch effortlessly from number-crunching to empathetic mode and back again. He loves hearing people’s life stories, and is just as happy speculating about their deeper emotions as he is analysing their demographic profile. He wants to know what makes you tick, whoever you are and wherever you come from. Why does Boris Yeltsin drink so much? (During one memorable visit to the White House, Yeltsin ends up in his underpants on Pennsylvania Avenue trying to hail a cab to find him a pizza.) Clinton contemplates calling Mrs Yeltsin in for a heart to heart, and maybe even staging an intervention. You get the feeling there is nothing he would enjoy more than trawling through Yeltsin’s childhood, looking for clues, and spinning yarns about the drunks he knew back in Arkansas, including his own stepfather. Among world leaders, only Jiang Zemin remains entirely immune to his charm, and this nags away at Clinton far more than the intractable business of US-Chinese trade relations. On the whole, Clinton emerges as a consistently shrewd judge of political character, but he invariably needs some biographical detail to make a connection. He gets it badly wrong in 1995, when he spends most of the year worrying obsessively about Colin Powell, whom he suspects of planning to run for the presidency and fears is the one person who could beat him. When Powell decides not to run, these anxieties suddenly look silly, but Clinton can’t let it drop. ‘The mistaken prediction about Powell seemed to gnaw at Clinton,’ Branch writes. ‘His mental churn pulled up a fresh clue. Every upward step for Powell had been paved by patronage and appointment, observed Clinton, including his post in the Reagan White House. Powell was a career staff officer at heart.’ In the end, Clinton nailed his man, as Powell’s horribly ineffectual spell as George W. Bush’s secretary of state was to show.

Something else Clinton gets right in the end is the 2000 presidential election, where we see him becoming increasingly fretful about Al Gore’s ability to beat Bush. Among domestic politicians, Bush stands out as being entirely immune to Clinton’s charms (a striking point of overlap with China’s autocrats), and Clinton comes away from a private dinner in early 1999 having found him ‘miserable and hostile the whole time’. But though Clinton reciprocates the dislike he does not share the disdain. As always, he admires Bush’s brutal political instincts and his willingness to do whatever it takes to fight the election on his own ground. Clinton sees Bush as having reduced the campaign to three basic elements – personality, prosperity and partisanship – on the assumption that if he can win on two of these three fronts he will win the White House. Recounting a conversation in August 2000, three months before the election, Branch describes Clinton as ‘rattled’. ‘Bush’s strategy denigrated the politics Clinton loved. At the same time, Bush aimed to win votes by doing so, which was politics, and therefore he earned Clinton’s grudging admiration.’ What Clinton feared was that Gore was playing into Bush’s hands by trying to distance himself from the tawdriness that surrounded the Clinton White House post-Lewinsky. Gore had to run on the record, Clinton felt, because he would lose on personality. Prosperity should have been Gore’s winning card, but by appearing to hold his nose at what had gone on under Clinton he made it too easy for Bush to associate the Clinton years with scandal instead.

Of course, Gore didn’t agree, and even at third hand (via Clinton via Branch) one senses his exasperation at the idea that Clinton had the answers, when as he saw it Clinton himself was the problem. The most compelling scene in the book comes near the end, with an extended account of the meeting Clinton had with Gore after the election was finally lost. The idea was for each man to say what he thought had gone wrong, in a spirit of reconciliation, but they are soon baring their teeth. Gore can’t get past Lewinsky, and Clinton can’t get past the fact that Gore is still using Lewinsky as an excuse for all the failings of his campaign, including his inability to generate a coherent message. Gore wants Clinton to apologise to him personally for what he did, whereas Clinton feels he has been doing nothing but apologising. As Clinton saw it, ‘Gore was merely revealing himself a creature of Washington and the press, soaked in spin-cycle indignation that Clinton could never apologise earnestly or completely enough.’ Here is the ultimate insult in the Clinton lexicon: Gore had been posturing like a journalist when he should have been thinking like a politician. For Gore, Clinton is the posturer because he can never come clean about the demons that drive him. This gives Gore the moral high ground. But Clinton has the killer political argument. ‘By God,’ Branch has him exclaim, ‘Hillary [who was winning her New York Senate seat at the same time Gore was losing the presidency] had a helluva lot more reason to resent [me] than Gore did, and yet she ran unabashedly on the Clinton-Gore record. With that clarity, she came from 30 points down to win by double digits.’

Apparently Clinton is not happy about the way Hillary is portrayed in this book: the conversations happened in the family quarters and late at night (the idea was to keep them secret since taping in the White House has a chequered history) and so we occasionally catch her wandering around in her face cream and so on. I don’t know why Bill minds. Hillary comes out of this book fine. It barely dwells on the fiasco of her failed healthcare reforms and accords her plenty of dignity during the Lewinsky trials. Who can say if one person really loves another, but Bill appears here to be genuinely fond of his wife, and genuinely frightened of her. He is thrilled when she becomes a senator and he shows plenty of respect for her political judgment – she spots that Colin Powell is all medals and no trousers well before he does. Yet behind all this solicitousness it’s not hard to see the guilt bubbling away, as it does in Clinton’s relationship with Chelsea, whom he adores, pampers and, of course, betrays. In one extraordinary scene, Clinton wrestles with the question of whether he can go to Japan on important state business at a time when Chelsea is about to take some exams. ‘Clearly distraught,’ Branch writes, ‘he sifted implications like a medieval scholastic. It was a choice between public duty on a vast scale and the most personal devotion, with potential hurt feelings on all sides.’ To get this in perspective: the exams are junior-year midterms; the Japanese trip is to apologise for the deep offence Clinton has caused by sending Gore in his place to an earlier economic summit attended by other heads of government. When Gore discovers that the president is struggling with this dilemma he concludes, understandably, that Clinton has lost his mind. Branch is generally restrained in using hindsight to explain what might lie behind his conversations with Clinton. But he can’t resist letting us know that this particular exchange took place during the government shutdown of late 1995, ‘which had just facilitated his first two groping assignations with young Monica Lewinsky’.

However, anyone reading this book hoping for some outright contrition to go along with the palpable guilt will, like Gore, come away disappointed. Clinton doesn’t do introspection: his obsessive, almost prurient interest in other people is partly there to prevent him having to think too hard about himself. On the rare occasions Branch gets him to reflect on what might lie behind his personal failings the results are fairly excruciating. During a conversation in August 1999, after Clinton has been provoked by a reporter’s question about what Hillary might have meant by ‘her insinuation that he was emotionally scarred’, Branch says that ‘something welled up’:

‘I think I just cracked,’ he said, over and over. He felt sorry for himself. When this thing started with Lewinsky in 1995, he had gone through a bad run of people dying at the start – his mother, Vince Foster [his old friend from Arkansas who committed suicide after being brought to Washington as a White House counsel, prompting a wave of conspiracy theories], Rabin – plus the mean-spirited investigations of him and Hillary and everybody else … He had just cracked. He said he could have done worse. He could have blown something up.

Well, he did blow something up – a pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan, three days after he had been forced to confess to the affair on national television in the summer of 1998. As for dragging poor Yitzhak Rabin into it, Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, can be blamed for a great deal, but not for the fact that Clinton wound up, in Branch’s deathless description, placing ‘his unlit cigar playfully in [Lewinsky’s] vagina’.

If Clinton was haunted by Rabin’s death, it was for political, not psychosexual reasons. No one knows whether Rabin would finally have been able to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians, but Clinton, along with many others, became persuaded that his assassination had made it more or less impossible. Clinton’s failure to broker a peace in the Middle East was the greatest regret of his presidency. It was not an isolated failure, however. Clinton did nothing to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, and he made little headway in stopping the carnage in Bosnia, where he seems not to have known what to do, nor how to deal with Milosevic, until Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for war persuaded him to bomb the Serbs out of Kosovo in 1999. Generally, foreign affairs proved far less tractable for Clinton than his domestic difficulties. His mixture of charm and attention to detail wasn’t enough: overseas politicians would be charmed by him but then ignore him, and no amount of number-crunching could change the fact that other countries’ elections weren’t his to fight. We see him in May 1996, ‘talking intently on the phone about poll data in Israel’. But he is powerless to do anything about what he hears:

District by district, he kept asking if that was all, writing down the numbers. Apparently Shimon Peres had done well in the only debate scheduled with his challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu … He had gained one point overall in the post-debate polls, building his nationwide lead to 3 per cent. The president looked resigned when he hung up. Three points were not enough, he said. Israeli elections always closed in the last few days towards the war party.

As usual, the president was right. To which Netanyahu, then as now, would have said: so what?

The one place outside the United States that did suit Clinton’s brand of politics was Northern Ireland. Clinton describes each of his trips there with something like rapture. When the people of Northern Ireland vote in favour of the Good Friday agreement in May 1998, Clinton is euphoric, and in his element. ‘He analysed majorities of 51-54 per cent by district,’ Branch tells us, and he ‘beamed’. But Clinton is shrewd enough to know that Northern Ireland is not like the Middle East. Reflecting on the difference between his successes and his failures in a conversation recorded just 12 days before the end of his presidency, he gives Branch his final verdict:

Peacemaking quests came in two kinds: scabs and abscesses. A scab is a sore with a protective crust, which may heal with time and simple care. In fact, if you bother it too much, you can reopen the wound and cause infection. An abscess, on the other hand, inevitably gets worse without painful but cleansing intervention. ‘The Middle East is an abscess,’ he concluded. ‘Northern Ireland is a scab.’

Yet because Clinton doesn’t do introspection, he doesn’t go on to draw the obvious inference: he was a scab president. America during the Clinton years was booming, for reasons that had a little to do with his presidency (welfare reform, a balanced budget) and a lot to do with factors beyond his control (the end of the Cold War, improved telecommunications, the Fed’s permanent propitiation of Wall Street, the growth of the housing and internet bubbles). The politics of this period was lurid and ugly on the surface, but underneath everything seemed fine. During and after the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton drew great comfort from the fact that his approval ratings rarely dipped below 60 per cent (for reference, Obama is now dipping below 50 per cent) and were higher at the end of his presidency than they had been at the beginning. But he doesn’t stop to ask if this was because people liked him and his policies, and forgave him his indiscretions, or because they were too busy making money to care.

The trouble with a scab presidency is that it doesn’t leave much of an impression behind: it’s not only the ugliness that is superficial. One of the striking features of George W. Bush’s time in office is how quickly, and easily, he was able to dispense with Clinton’s legacy and start doing things his way, notwithstanding a practically non-existent mandate from the voters. Of course, the American political system gives all new presidents a relatively free hand, and makes it hard for any administration to exercise much hold on the next. Still, Clinton had hoped for much more. He believed, for instance, that his relentless efforts to balance the budget would educate the American people into understanding the importance of long-term planning and fiscal responsibility. Then Bush came along and scrapped all that, plunging straight into tax cuts and deep deficits, and the American people simply shrugged and pocketed what was offered to them. Clinton complained to Branch in one of their final interviews that ‘Bush was uncomfortable with foraging, creative, institutional leadership. He wanted to point out the bad guys and lead a charge.’ Clinton himself was certainly foraging, and in his own way he was creative, but his reforms did not have deep institutional roots. He was too catholic in his interests and his tastes, as these conversations with Branch make abundantly clear, constantly on the lookout for new challenges and diversions, always keen to demonstrate what he might be able to add to any topic. In the end, it was too much about him. He left the White House with the American people sated but distracted and the Democratic Party drained and demoralised. It’s hard not to finish this book feeling the same way.

Clinton’s final frustration was that he was denied by the constitution from running for a third term, so that it could have carried on being all about him. He was sure, and he was surely correct, that he could have wiped the floor with Bush in 2000. There has been a lot of speculation about what might have happened on 9/11 if it had been Gore in the White House instead of W., but it is just as interesting (albeit just as idle) to think about what might have followed had Clinton still been there. Would he have seen the confrontation with Islamic terrorism as a ‘scab’ problem, to be carefully watched and given time to heal, or an ‘abscess’, which required some deep incisions? Would he have been blamed for what happened, as the public woke up to the institutional deficiencies of his scattergun approach, or would he have steered the nation round to a mature and seasoned response, as he effortlessly managed following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995? As it is, we know what did happen: Bush and the people behind him were already itching for some bloodletting, and the knives were drawn long before the smoke had cleared. Now America has two gaping wounds – haemorrhaging public finances and an unwinnable war in Afghanistan – and a young, inexperienced Democratic president struggling to know how to deal with either. During his wife’s epic struggle with Obama in 2008, Clinton occasionally let his frustration boil over, no doubt feeling that he could have beaten Obama, and then trounced McCain, had he been running himself. But by this point it really was no longer about him. Obama is the one left with the tough decisions, and the sticking-plasters.

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