BOOKS: ‘The Clinton Tapes’

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THE CLINTON TAPES: WRESTLING HISTORY WITH THE PRESIDENT
By Taylor Branch
Simon & Schuster, $35, 707 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAUDE R. MARX

This is one secret most Americans will be glad former President Bill Clinton kept.

Throughout his eight years in the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton held regular meetings with longtime friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch to discuss Mr. Clinton’s views on the events and people shaping his presidency. Few staff members knew about the chats, and word was never leaked to the press or other historians.

The result is “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President,” which contains remarkable insights into that fascinating time period and a running commentary from the central figure in many of the key events. Mr. Branch rarely quotes Mr. Clinton, instead paraphrasing him because the book is based on the author’s recollections and summaries of the interviews rather than on the tapes of the conversations, which remain in the former president’s possession.

Still, all of the features that make Mr. Clinton such an enigma — his brilliance, his narcissism and his off-the-charts emotional intelligence — are on display in large quantities.

In recounting a 1994 discussion on health care, Mr. Branch notes that the president shifted from an arcane policy analysis to an astute political assessment.

Clinton homed in on the challenge of public presentation. Not many advocates understood the complexities of the health care bill, he said, and few of these could shine a clear spotlight on its merits: universal coverage, cost containment, patient choice and payment simplification.”

The more detailed sections focus on foreign policy, with a special emphasis on Haiti, the Balkans and the Middle East. Mr. Clinton shifts between being boastful and self-critical. But some of the best sections aren’t the professorial analyses but rather Mr. Branch’s recounting of Mr. Clinton’s description of the interview with Richard C. Holbrooke (the chief negotiator of the Dayton Accords, which brought a measure of peace to the Balkans) when he was being considered for secretary of state.

Clinton had asked whether he would wind up taking grief for his secretary’s abrasive reputation. ‘Oh, Mr. President,’ scoffed Holbrooke, ‘that only happened because I was told to be more aggressive with the press.’ No, Clinton persisted. People said more generally that he could be arrogant and irritating. Holbrooke looked sheepish in his reply; ‘Well, I kind of understand,’” Mr. Branch wrote.

While the book contains many such stories, its organization can make it hard for readers to navigate the almost 700 pages of occasionally unwieldy narrative. Because Mr. Branch chose to write about the conversations chronologically, he often shifts from topic to topic. It might have helped if he had organized the book by subject.

Those who read “The Clinton Tapes” will also get some gossipy bonuses, as befits a book about the 42nd president.

Mr. Branch recounts Mr. Clinton’s story about being seated between Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren at a dinner and he initially hesitated when Miss Taylor asked him if he had admired Miss Loren’s cleavage. When Mr. Clinton admitted that he had, Miss Taylor replied, “That’s better.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Clinton has a great deal to say about the successful effort to impeach him. He doesn’t shed much more light on it than he did previously and focuses mostly on what he sees as a conservative witch hunt. It would have been helpful if Mr. Branch had been able to elicit more revelatory comments and brought readers into the room where Mr. Clinton and his advisers planned his defense.

One comes away from those sections of the book disgusted by Mr. Clinton’s self-absorption and efforts to spin his way out of a mess, and angered by Republicans’ efforts to drag him through the mud and criminalize political differences.

The vast subject matter of the book will help both general readers and historians better understand the Clinton presidency. This is especially important because in Mr. Clinton’s 2004 memoir, “My Life,” his treatment of his years in office is quite superficial and not particularly self-reflective. The sections on the presidency reads more like a travelogue.

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