The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Sep 29 2009
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“I have seldom read a more compelling account of a leader in power. . . . An unexpected treasure-trove. Here is Clinton out of hours and off his guard. . . . The story behind this book reads like the plot of a Hollywood movie.”
--Robert Harris, The Sunday Times (London)
“A remarkable portrait of White House life. . . . An important work about American political life. . . . Branch is an historian by trade, and an excellent one. . . . To the extent that Branch’s portrait of the president rescues politics from ignominy, he has done a real public service; that he has done this while vividly portraying an exuberant American original is cause for joy. . . . Revealing and often delightful.”
--Joe Klein, The New York Times Book Review
“By turns intimate and dispassionately historical . . . this book will be a boon to historians. The casual reader might delight more in Branch’s glimpses of an unguarded president.”
--Gilbert Cruz, Time
“Taylor Branch’s latest book has made me whistle more than any comparable piece of work for a very long time, and not just because of its many remarkable disclosures.”
--Christopher Hitchens, Newsweek
About the Author
Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Taylor Branch has been able to avoid this deluge of self pity. While his book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President is nominally a review of the Clinton presidency in its entirety, its longest and most fascinating parts deal with the motivations and inner workings of his foreign policy interventions. And it makes a strong case that while certainly not perfect, the Clinton White House was indeed passionately engaged in important foreign policy issues of the day (or at least much more so than any of its congressional peers), and that at its heart this policy was driven by a small but persistent affinity to the principles of liberal internationalism.
If this seems surprising now then it's partly a reflection of how successful those interventions were, and if they seem like small accomplishments now it's only because we have a hard time imagining how intractable those problems seemed at the time.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Taylor made two duplicate tape recordings of each of 79 two-hour interviews conducted over a period between 1993 and 2001. In order to insure that the President felt like he could talk candidly about even the most delicate subjects, it was agreed that Clinton would keep both tape recordings of each interview in his personal possession. Clinton put both of the only copies into "what he called `a good hiding place'--his sock drawer" in the dressing room next to his and Hillary's White House bedroom.
This book is not a transcription of those secret tapes. It is the author's recollections and notes of each of those two-hour "shooting the bull" confabs. After turning over the recordings to Clinton for safe storage in his super-secret hiding place, Taylor Branch would drive himself home. During the hour it usually took him to reach his driveway when driving home late at night and early in the morning, he would make another tape recording of his impressions and recollections of what was said during the earlier White House interviews. These "driving home tape recordings," his notes and memory are the basis of this 700 plus-page book. Clinton or his library will probably eventually release the President's tapes, but as of this date, they are still secret although the President told his old friend that he used much of the material in them for his own memoir and was delighted to have it.
The book includes a very detailed 38-page index that makes this material much more accessible to the reader. Unlike other recent memoirs by major political players this book doesn't ignore negative events in the life of the book's main character. Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones et al are listed in the index dozens of times with lots of cross-references. It's easy to locate the material that most interests the reader or researcher. That makes this book a particularly good reference book. Ever since this reviewer took a speed-reading class in high school, rapid consumption of the printed word has been the norm. However, this book isn't all unfamiliar territory. Because this reader and most of the first readers of this volume will have lived through much of this very recent history and already have a decent knowledge of the events in it, it's difficult to speed read this book. The reader constantly comes across details of the story that cause the reader to have to slow down, pause and carefully consider how these new insights on the events differ from the reader's own knowledge and understanding of the events as gathered from the news media. It's a real pleasure to actually hear a first-hand account of the details of President Clinton discussing how he came to a particular decision and why it had to be that way. Whatever the interested reader's own political party, beliefs and personal opinions of William Jefferson Clinton they can't help but be impressed with this book. It's amazing how a person's opinions can change when they learn all the options and politics that led to a certain decision. That goes for decisions about last minute pardons, signing off on the Special Prosecutor's deal that would enable him to avoid confessing any guilt and only surrender his license to practice law in Arkansas for five years and bring the endless ordeal of investigations to a final conclusion. It also allowed the Clintons to start paying off the millions of dollars in legal bills that those never-ending investigations had run up.
This book is packed with fresh material about the not-so secret events of Clinton's two terms as President of the United States. It's filled with the way Clinton liked to talk and express things in his natural southern folksy way.
This reviewer particularly enjoyed the end of the book where Al Gore also sat in for a recorded discussion with his boss and Branch. There is lot of fascinating information that resulted from that candid discussion and remarkably; this reviewer's opinion of both politicians was much improved because of it.
It was also enlightening to learn that while Clinton had thought he'd miss being in the Oval Office, he was surprised and relieved to be out of the pressure cooker of the Presidency. He'd thought he would play a lot of golf after he left the White House only to discover that while he enjoyed the escape from the constant pressure and stress while serving as President, he didn't care that much for golf once he was out of office. He preferred other mentally stimulating activities such as reading more. This book, the author's taped recollections and of course the secret tapes that Clinton still retains, are already very important and interesting history. This is a terrific read or if the reader prefers, an extremely helpful reference book to dip into whenever additional information is needed about any Clinton action, policy or his feelings about it. Naturally there are some touching family incidents described in the volume as well.
We learn so much about Bill Clinton, the man and the president, that would otherwise not be known, until or unless the tapes, (which President Clinton has) are released for public consumption. What is perhaps not so surprising is that many major current events change so quickly. Reflecting on the early years of the Clinton presidency, who remembers now so much focus on Haiti and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide? Even the war in Kosovo and other former Yugoslav republics are now in the background of many of our thoughts. Of course, the Middle East, the Korean peninsula, India and Pakistan are still "current", but many of the players have changed. Yasir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein are all gone now, but Clinton's examination of them makes it seem like just yesterday. We get to see a president who is utterly engaged in peace processes around the world with a deep understanding of the conflicts that arose during that time.
We also witness a personal side of Bill Clinton that is remarkable. He is often so dead tired that Taylor Branch finds him nodding off during their meetings. The president loves basketball and his own golf game, but isn't particularly knowledgeable about baseball. More than occasionally he seems to suffer from some physical injury or allergies depending on the day and season. Clinton dislikes the media intensely (as do most presidents) and through Branch's remembrances Clinton remains very close to Hillary and Chelsea. But there's humor, too...Clinton's own comparison of being president and running a cemetery is very funny, and Arafat's self-deprecating joke is hysterical! A more poignant and steamed up Bill Clinton, however, has a candid conversation toward the final chapters with outgoing vice president Al Gore regarding the reasons for Gore's loss of the White House. Those few pages are among the best in the book.
A significant question that any reader might have is this: "as a friend of the president, was Taylor Branch too close for impartial recall?" I suspect the answer is yes AND no, as Branch ponders that proximity throughout the book. If there is one downside to "The Clinton Tapes" it is on that very point...the author injects himself a little too much sometimes into the narrative. That said, this historic book covers the Clinton presidency at every level and most likely will be the best look at the White House from 1993-2001 from an outsider's point of view. I highly recommend it.
Reagan was aware of this issue and appointed an official biographer early in his tenure and Edmund Morris, a noted historian himself, was given unprecedented access to the President and his White House. His resulting work failed, however, for many reasons, most notably that he was unable to retain the journalistic distance needed to create a proper history.
President Clinton and Branch knew one another during the McGovern campaign in 1972, sharing an apartment in Texas to help run that area of the operation. When he was elected, being aware of the historical issues I've noted, Clinton contacted Branch and asked him for a recommendation on how the needs of history could be met. What they settled upon has been described in many places, so I'll save some time.
This is what Branch created based on his observations of the process he and the President underwent. As in any good history, there is distance and criticism, as well as nearly overwhelming detail. "Wrestling History" is a great title, as a comparison between it and Clinton's own autobiography finds many differences and I think the interested reader will enjoy both, as they reveal different facets of the same President and the semi-universe of a modern presidency.
What I gleaned the most from Branch's book was, somewhat surprisingly, how big a role politics -- the horse-trading, the pork-barrelling, peevishness, etc. -- shapes a President's (or Congress') accomplishments. Perhaps I'm naive, but I'd like to think that occasionally Washington operates on a "need to help" basis, and thus this book can be quite disillusioning. It's particularly good reading right now as we watch the pols toss around universal health care one more time.
Branch belabors his efforts to remain honest and impartial, regardless of the consequences. For that reason I suspect it will not be popular, but will have earned its place in history.
The book provides many fascinating details and insights from a very astute and intelligent man during his tenure in office as President of the United States. Even better is that this information is not colored by hindsight from thoughts taken years later-like, his impressions of Yeltsin or Assad while he was dealing with them and not after their death, or his thinking about Whitewater as the investigation progresses at various stages and not after he left office and was exonerated.
Whatever your feelings are about Bill Clinton, this book will give you a better idea of the vissitudes that a President faces and in this book, how he handled them.
While the gossipy anecdotes are sure to provide fodder for cocktail conversation, the substance of the book can be found principally in the extended descriptions of Clinton's forays in international diplomacy. Governing, in some respects, is much more about politics than we often realize; a reality at odds with the conventional view that the "permanent campaign" pitfalls of a 24-hour news environment have corrupted the political process. In other words, the sympathetic view of Clinton presented in this book is a natural consequence of high political stakes being met by a first-class political mind.
For those who might think that Taylor Branch is too sympathetic to Clinton to be able to write about him objectively, I suggest that they read his civil rights trilogy. He's too smart to allow himself to be cast as a blatantly sycophantic propagandist; he acquits himself here with grace, intelligence and an appropriate level of deference.
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