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The Confessions of Bill

William J. Clinton Presidential Library
Taylor Branch and President Clinton in the Oval Office, October 20, 1993; 
from The Clinton Tapes

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 this early defeat. Clinton thought of appointing Senator Sam Nunn as secretary of defense in 1996, but the memory of photographs of Nunn touring a navy ship and shivering at the prospect of gay sailors in such close quarters assured a veto of his nomination by the liberal wing of the party.

On universal health care, Branch misses the drama of attrition and anti-climax by which the President’s soaring commitments were abridged week by week until the concept expired. This series of capitulations was the source of many people’s later suspicion that Bill Clinton was fond of the language of principle but would finally compromise on almost anything. Again, the character of his performance on health care, and his handing it to his wife to add to her luster, seemed to confirm the rumors that the President’s conduct was shaded by cronyism and his demeanor slack and self-indulgent. He was said to run policymaking at the White House as a series of inspired bull sessions: an impression successfully planted by Bob Woodward in The Agenda. Branch faithfully registers Clinton’s irritation at that partial portrait and, without exactly refuting it, convinces us that the reality was far more intricate. He quotes Clinton saying later that he should have “started with a small piece of health reform” and been content to profit from whatever public good might follow.

About the time Branch settled into his irregular White House routine, the President was considering the appointment of a politician to the Supreme Court. He wanted to break the solid streak of lawyers and judges. Mario Cuomo, Bruce Babbitt, and, in the following year, George Mitchell were all seriously considered, but Cuomo turned it down; Babbitt, after a tantalizing pause, was told that his regional influence was needed at the Department of the Interior; and Mitchell withdrew his name out of loyalty to the President’s need for Democratic numbers in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Clinton already found himself dogged by old enemies from Arkansas. He was sure the Whitewater controversy would die down since there was nothing to the charges. But Cliff Jackson and Sheffield Nelson, “both of whom,” Branch says, had “turned from Democrats to failed Republican candidates” in Arkansas, had time on their hands and a shot at getting their names in the papers. “They don’t have anything else going in their lives,” said Clinton, “but trying to bring me down.” He surrendered early to the demand for an independent prosecutor because he felt so secure about the innocuousness of the case. This was a large misjudgment. He had underestimated the malice, the wildness, and the persistence of his enemies. These portents coincided with the emergence of Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America—a gimmick whose crude appeal to an old anti- federalism brought a midterm Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in November 1994.

That Clinton was able to ride out that storm was the first convincing show of his mastery. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, also served as a reminder to the more genteel of his accusers that the pleasure of hating Clinton made for a sport that could go over the edge. The virulence of the anti-government forces of that time is brought out by Branch’s recollections here: even Clinton’s statements after Oklahoma City on the importance of respect for government were widely taken to be one more piece of opportunism. And once the grimness of the event was absorbed, the Republicans in Congress held hearings not on Oklahoma City but on the abuse of federal power in the FBI assault on the Branch Davidians at Waco.

Taylor Branch admires Clinton within reason, but when there are two sides to an argument he is apt to see things from Clinton’s point of view. He conveys well the vituperative rage of the Republicans at Clinton’s theft of their “small is better” programs and the anti-government rhetoric that had been their sole argumentative resource. The climactic episode here was the repeal of much of the welfare system and the substitution of work requirements: a decision on which Branch comments too briefly. The rejection of welfare precipitated, as Clinton knew it would, a break with veterans of the civil rights movement, such as Marion Wright Edelman, who had been his friends for two decades. When Clinton reversed his liberal commitments, he found high-sounding reasons to do so, as well as one good party reason: it would take the issue away from the Republicans forever. But no one doubted at the time that he did it to buy insurance for the 1996 election, which he was already favored to win. This fact Branch does not omit but plays down.

Of Russia in the early years of his presidency, as of Bosnia and Kosovo in the later years, little is heard in Branch’s summary of the tapes. It is rare to see a show of passion from the President away from domestic policy. Yet Clinton flares with anger when he thinks about Saddam Hussein—a puzzling contrast (as Branch portrays it) with his almost genial acceptance of the tyranny of Suharto. The leader of Iraq is the only person in these pages whom Clinton will be heard to say he hates. He hates him, Clinton says, for what he has done to his people. Yet there is something heartless in Clinton’s own remarks about the deaths of Iraqi civilians in the botched American missile attack of June 26, 1993. He had ordered the bombing of Iraqi intelligence headquarters in retaliation for a supposed plot against the life of George H.W. Bush; three of twenty-three Tomahawk cruise missiles went astray and killed Iraqis who lived nearby. “I regret the loss of life,” Clinton tells Branch for the record. “His tone was wooden and mechanical,” Branch comments, “with barely a trace of feeling, but he repeated the phrase several times.” A similar tone of calculation is audible as Clinton considers the politics of an American operation to restore the govern- ment of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. “When the first soldier dies, I’m a dead duck.”

Clinton was baffled by the press coverage that made his smallest move appear drenched in cynicism and his remotest associations corrupt or devious. Reports like those by Jeff Gerth in The New York Times on Whitewater and later on Wen Ho Lee, the alleged smuggler of nuclear secrets—sensational exposures that would come to be largely discredited—were damaging to the minimal reputation for probity without which a politician cannot be trusted to act. Clinton saw the Times and The Washington Post as the heart of the problem. By their pursuit of scandals, they gave permission to the tabloids lower down the ladder, and he said with some justice: “I think these papers have corrupted themselves over Whitewater.” The reporters and columnists alike made the most of any hint of purposeful alliance between the President and his wife. They were no less satisfied to transmit the slightest suggestion of marital discord.

Branch’s record suggests that the political intelligence shared by Bill and Hillary Clinton was perhaps more interesting and flexible than either separately commands. The American press lacked the wit for a single reporter to discover this; yet it comes out unmistakably in several interludes of The Clinton Tapes. Consider Hillary’s account (on her way to bed) of a day’s business in the health care debate, where a surgeon has testified that government does nothing to assist Medicare. “She and the president,” writes Branch, “completed each other’s sentences in a chortling spoof of doctrinaire contradictions in medical policy.” One of them trots out the slogan that “no American could be denied quality health care,” and the other adds, “but no one was required to pay.” The Clintons enjoyed each other’s quickness and shared a familiar scorn for time-wasters.

The establishment press ended by finding Bill Clinton not so much elusive as empty. His wife’s political ambition, as shown by her run for the Senate in 2000, and the sympathy with which he worked to advance it were taken as proof of a quality somehow worse than ambition in himself. What could that be? At this distance, it is barely possible to reconstruct the grounds for the continuous heat of jeering sarcasm that issued from Howell Raines, William Safire, and Maureen Dowd at the Times, and from Len Downie, Sally Quinn, and David Broder at the Post. The lightheaded meanness of the attitude carried over to their disdain for Gore in 2000, and influenced a jocular acceptance of Bush. This was true not only of the credulity toward the Whitewater charges and Paula Jones, but regarding smaller scandals as well, from the firing of agents at the White House travel office to the false rumor of vandalism by the Clinton staff on their departure in 2001.

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