The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President
by Taylor Branch
Simon and Schuster, 707 pp., $35.00
In the fall of 1993, Taylor Branch agreed with Bill Clinton to conduct occasional interviews on tapes that would be turned into an oral chronicle of the Clinton presidency. The two had been friends more than twenty years earlier in Texas on the McGovern presidential campaign of 1972. Branch, in more recent years, had published the first volume of his trilogy on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and was in the middle of writing the second; the tapes, for him, would be an interruption of planned work, whereas for Clinton they promised to be a flattering record of work in progress. This inequality was balanced by the fact that Branch liked the idea of seeing the President close-up. The two resumed their friendship with ease, and, between October 1993 and March 2001, produced the seventy-nine interviews of which the present book offers a digest.
The arrangement was peculiar in one respect. Clinton kept the tapes, while Branch had to dictate impressions on tapes of his own as he drove back to Baltimore from each visit to the White House. Clinton used the originals to assist in the writing of his memoirs; at some future date, they will probably be open to scholars. This set-up means that Branch’s chronicle has not a single extended quotation of Bill Clinton. A sentence every two or three pages is what we get, surrounded by dutiful and often undistinguished paragraphs of summary. Still, Branch has eyes and ears. When he can pause long enough to violate a self-denying ordinance, he also has considerable powers of analysis. Yet an unsuspecting confidence is the pervasive tone—a trust that appears to have continued beyond recorded conversations. Branch sent proofs of the book to Clinton and invited him to suggest nonsubstantive revisions.
The sprawling summary that makes up The Clinton Tapes follows Clinton’s train of associations. One conse-quence of Branch’s starting well into Clinton’s first year in office is a foreshortened view of the defeat of the President’s first project, the legalization of gays in the military, and a minimal treatment of the launching of his second, the initiative to convert the country to a plan of universal health care. The choice of the gay issue as the first of this presidency was improbable in a way Branch does not quite seem to grasp. Though an obvious next step in toleration, it was sure to be controversial, and remote from the centrist spirit in which Clinton had run his campaign. It could be relied on to bring back the acrimonious battles of the 1980s.
David Mixner and other leaders of the gay community had advised him against taking up the cause so early. Clinton drove ahead in spite of their advice, and gave a taste of victory to enemies who would prove relentless. There would be other casualties from …
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