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Book Review: The Clinton Tapes


I just finished read The Clinton Tapes by Taylor Branch this morning. It’s a massive read at 720 pages, but it was worth it on some levels. For me, I go through periods of not being able to find things to read that keep my interest so I always fall back to a book on Clinton to jump start me back into reading mode where I learn quite a bit from it & enjoy it immensely.

This is the 15th book on the Clinton Presidency I’ve read making me somewhat of a “Clinton Expert” so to speak for not having any direct relation to the man. It’s tough to read a book 700+ pages long without taking a few notes to reflect on upon completion. Seeing how I read this book for pleasure, I didn’t bother with any note taking so I can only offer general impressions of the book.

Briefly the “idea” of the book was had by Clinton who approached Branch about the possibility of doing somewhat of an oral history during the Clinton years & having them as an historical document once Clinton left office for historians to pour over & garner a deeper understanding of the Clinton presidency. The premise was for Branch to be a facilitator in getting Clinton to talk about current events from his perspective. You get all this on tape, write a couple of books and BOOM! you have an oral history from one of the most controversial politicians to have walked the planet.

I think the selection of Branch was a tough one because he & Clinton are buddies. I don’t know if this actually pervades the project as a whole, but the book is VERY MUCH a pro Clinton book. Obviously this is going to be the case because it’s basically Clinton’s perspective & Branch likes Bill too much to rake him over the coals for the controversies of the day. With that said here is my take on some of the issues with the book.

If you are looking for notes on Clinton’s thoughts about the scandals he was involved with during his presidency then you won’t find them. Branch & Clinton didn’t talk about Whitewater at all because they were told not to legally because the oral histories could be subpoenaed by the special investigators. At times Clinton would go over cursory facts of the case, but nothing more underlying than the barest of opinions. The same is true of the Lewinsky scandal & Clinton’s subsequent impeachment by the House of Representatives. Amazingly the book is ridiculously long, yet those controversies are nowhere to be found for a deeper understanding. Travelgate was scarcely mentioned as well.

The book spent massive amounts of time on Clinton’s influence in the Middle East peace talks between Israel & the Palestinians. You can certainly tell that Clinton felt he could very much bolster his legacy with the being the president who bartered a peace deal between these two factions who seemingly disagree about everything. A lasting peace was never cemented & you can really feel how disappointed Clinton was at this particular diplomatic failure.

An aspect of the book I felt was rather interesting is how much time Clinton spent on foreign affairs. There was massive talk about Haiti, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Northern Ireland, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, North Korea & South Korea. Maybe a lot of this was due to Clinton’s ability to get away from the United States because he was taking a beating domestically with the constant scandal. Branch doesn’t really dive into the mechanics of why Clinton spoke early & often of so much going on globally rather than domestically. Much time was spent on India/Pakistan relations which I thought was very interesting. I also thought Clinton’s take on China was interesting although all the North Korea/South Korea details I found tedious.

Something I think it always interesting about Clinton is how much he elevates race to the forefront of everything he does. I know he grew up in the South during the Civil Rights era (so did Branch by the way), but it colors everything Clinton does/thinks. Clinton is still a part of that Baby Boomer/Hippies era of the 1960s that for younger people like me see as rather annoying. It’s amazing how much of an impact Vietnam must have had on people in that era. We’ve really only had one Democrat from that era in Clinton which makes him fairly unique. Both he & George W. Bush were both born in 1946 while Barack Obama was born in 1961. GW was a republican while Obama was a little young to be that influenced by the 1960s. Being of a liberal slant & going through that time period must have been incredible & you can see how it influences people like Clinton. My only criticism of people like Clinton is that you get the feel that they never left the 1960s. Even in the 2000s with Clinton, you almost get the feeling he’d still be more comfortable in 1967 than in 2007.

There is no question that Clinton is a master politician & I think this is where the book shines the most. I’ve read enough to know about Clinton’s personnel character. You either think the guy is no good or you don’t, but Branch sometimes hits fantastic highlights when he gets Clinton talking about the personalities of leaders on the grand stage. It was more interesting to hear Clinton talk about the personalities & idiosyncrasies of people like Netanyahu, Sharon, Perez, Barak & Arafat than the actual talks between Israel & the Palestinians to begin with.

Domestically it would have been more interesting to hear about how Clinton analyzed people like George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush & Dick Cheney, but that rarely came up. When it did it was really good reading & very interesting.

Unfortunately there wasn’t enough of that. Clinton has been dissected quite a bit so everyone is basically aware of what he did & what he accomplished as President. If you are a fan of Clinton this it’s worth the read, but expect a lot of time spent on foreign affairs & practically nothing about the actual events that pretty much define Clinton’s presidency & mark his legacy. An interesting dichotomy indeed for such a vast book on Bill Clinton.

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October 25, 2010 - Posted by | Bill Clinton, Book Review

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