Unabashedly For Clinton
I didn’t like Bill Clinton when he was first named the democratic nominee back in 1992. Certainly, he was not my first pick. Of course in 1992 I also didn’t realize that seventeen years later previously beer-swilling me would develop a fondness for red wines like Pinot Noir and Malbec. Some things do change. As the months to the election wore on I grew to like Clinton and I’ve liked him ever since. And now I like him even more after reading Taylor Branch’s doorstopper of a book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. [This first paragraph has been written as a public-service announcement for those of you who may not share my affection, meaning if you’re the sort person who, upon hearing this, experiences distress so far-reaching it makes you feel like an asthmatic in full-blown attack scrambling to locate an inhaler, please read no further. I just want to talk about what I think about the man and this book. I don’t want to kill anybody.]
The Clinton Tapes is based on a secret project Mr. Branch and Mr. Clinton embarked on together to preserve for future generations a historical record of what Mr. Clinton was thinking and doing during his eight years in office. The recordings were mostly made late at night in the White House, the tapes remaining in the possession of the president for use in writing his own memoirs later. After each session Mr. Branch, without the benefit of the actual tapes, would set down his own recollections of what had been discussed. The Clinton Tapes is 707 pages long, a mere 663 if you ignore the Index and Acknowledgments. There’s just no way I can thoroughly discuss the whole thing in a column of this length—I'd only get about ten words for each page in a 600-word column—so here then are my reactions to just a handful or two of lines that stood out.
“ ‘She must live in mortal fear,’ he guessed, that there’s somebody in the world living a healthy and productive life.” (p.444) This was in response to a typically vituperative Maureen Dowd column. It reminded me of how often Ms. Dowd has written bitterly about both Clintons over the years; how, even when a column starts out talking about another topic entirely, she can still manage to somehow get a dig in. It’s almost a reflex reaction, kind of like when my daughter was small and in a playgroup with a boy who would occasionally reach out and punch whoever happened to be walking by. And it also made me think about how many column inches and media air time on both sides is filled with just extraneous nonsense.
“For God’s sake, Clinton added, a president has to be much bigger than that. You work with people trying to throw you out of office. That’s your job.” (p.539)—on the idea that George W. Bush had never forgiven Clinton for beating his father. There are two things this reflects: 1) Clinton’s constant sense of the job of president as being a job and one that needed to be done well and 2) his awareness of the need to work with other people, regardless of what they might think of you or what you might think of them.
“Then he blasted notions of a lazy exit by announcing no fewer than sixty initiatives—all precise, some controversial, most drawing cheers in sustained rhythm.” (p.583) Clinton’s final State of the Union Address: after eight years of work, often performed amidst a sea of accusations, he was still looking to how much could yet be accomplished.
“ ‘My only regret is that I have to sleep so much,’ said the president. ‘I’d like to be awake all the time.’ ” (p.585) He was talking about how much he was savoring his last year. Back in early 1997 I wrote a never-published novel called Falling for Prince Charles about a Jewish cleaning lady who finds true love with the Prince of Wales. (Yes. Really.) In it, there’s a scene where the Clintons are invited to Buckingham Palace for a State Dinner, only to have Clinton discover that his staff has packed the wrong tux, the white one, which he hates because it always makes him look like a waiter. Still, his absolute love of his life and his position and his childlike glee at his good fortune—“Can you believe where we are, Hillary???”—comes through. That’s something I always saw in Clinton: while other presidents may walk through their duties with a sense of entitlement, or acquire that sense as they settle into the role, I never got the feeling Clinton took it for granted. There was always that joy, even when embattled, always that acknowledgment of what a privileged existence his was.
“ ‘I did four fundraisers yesterday.’ ” (p.620) In fall of 2000, when my daughter was just nine months old, Clinton stopped off here in Danbury as just one of several stops that day to campaign for democratic candidates. I remember taking her to see him and watching the olive green helicopters landing on the hills around the Charles Ives Center, remember being surprised when the Secret Service patted down Jackie’s stroller and really surprised when Jackie made her bird squawk so loud while Clinton was speaking, he stopped long enough to look for Republicans on the grass. But mostly I remember how impressively he spoke off the cuff about the candidate he was stumping for and the city of Danbury, as if he knew both intimately, and realizing he’d be doing the same for several other candidates within a twenty-four-hour period. In a political world where elected officials mostly live off the teleprompter, it was quite a thing to see.
“ ‘I only wish I could be in such good shape when I’m eighty-seven,’ he said with a whimsical smile. ‘Of course, I don’t think I’ll ever see eighty-seven.’ ” (p.633)—on Gerald Ford. And elsewhere he refers to the men in his family not being long lived. I do worry about his health and even before his heart issues, he was clearly constantly aware of Kipling’s unforgiving minute, as witnessed by his previously noted regret at the notion of having to ever sleep. I can understand this, both the desire to make every moment count and the belief that my own mortality is imminent. From the time I was in college I used to tell people, quite cheerfully, that I was certain I would die at forty-two. No particular reason. I was just sure of this. Well, that should have happened five years ago so if anyone was laying odds on me being right . . .
“ ‘I love this job,’ he said. ‘I think I’m getting better at it. I’d run again in a heartbeat if I could.’ ” (p.634) Damn you, Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution! Seriously, I wish he could have run again too. But look at that statement. People always talk about the presidency aging whoever holds the office and certainly Clinton aged a lot by the time his eight years were up, although I’d argue he still looked better coming out than going in. Still, contrast this with the person who held the office immediately after Clinton and what a hurry he was in to escape Washington once his two terms were up. And there’s Clinton, half out the door, still wanting to do the work. Earlier I mentioned the sense of entitlement with which some presidents move through the office. Sure, like Sting’s comment that it’s kind of nice to walk into a concert hall and be greeted by tens of thousands of people who are all happy to see you, it must be nice to have people play “Hail to the Chief” when you walk in the room. But what comes through most in The Clinton Tapes isn’t so much a love for all those sorts of trappings; rather, it’s for the work. It’s for all those initiatives that took place over eight years, during and in spite of the sound and fury of Whitewater, Lewinsky, Fill-in-the-Blank. It’s Israel and Ireland. It’s Kosovo and North Korea. It’s reducing the deficit and creating jobs. It’s keeping a million balls going at once and having an encyclopedic mind that remembers all the little intricacies of all those balls. And yeah, sometimes it’s also giving Chelsea pep talks about her homework while doing everything else.
For the eight years after Clinton left office I missed having a president who was brilliant. I got spoiled. Now I want all presidents to be brilliant. I want them to hate sleep. I want them to work on more than one problem at a time. I want them to be able to shrug off the vituperations of the Maureen Dowds of the world with dismissive remarks and I want them to be able to go on working no matter what else is going on around or being said about them. I want them to love that work. I want them to solve all the problems at home and, yes, I do want them to solve the world’s problems!
Let’s face it: I miss Bubba.
If you’ve made it this far and are thoroughly nauseated, you have no one to blame but yourself. After all, I did warn you.
Note: Some reviewers have claimed Mr. Branch to be not always objective in The Clinton Tapes. They cite the fact that he was paid $50,000 as a point against his objectivity. In fact, Clinton gave him that sum as a gift when the project was over and Clinton himself was newly flush with money. But considering he spent eight years and seventy-nine sessions compiling the tapes, not to mention the time spent in writing a 707-page book, it hardly seems a sum sufficient to ensure a favorable portrait. To the extent that the book is favorable, and it is very favorable, I would say that’s more a reflection of the fact that, like me, Taylor Branch is Unabashedly for Clinton.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling with the History of the President by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, 2009)
Win a free copy of Lauren’s Sisters 8 series! We will be giving away a copy of her first four books in the Sisters 8 series (Annie’s Adventures; Durinda’s Dangers; Georgia’s Greatness; Jackie’s Jokes) to this week’s lucky winner. These books are appropriate for readers ages 6-10. To enter, send us an e-mail with your name. That’s it. For this drawing, all names received on or before Friday, February 5 will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend. Only one entry per person, please. (We apologize to our international readers, but due to high postage costs we can only mail books to U.S. addresses.) There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Crazy Beautiful for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. In the year 2010 she'll have four more books published, including two more titles in The Sisters 8 series, The Education of Bet for teens and one more teen title. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren’s life and work (and contact her) at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.