Infinite Loop

What Bill Clinton’s talkathon can teach us.

Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.

When Paul Begala came up with the phrase “the comeback kid” to spin Bill Clinton’s second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, he may have been making a deeper observation than he knew. At any given moment, Clinton seems to be winning your admiration, squandering it, or putting every ounce of his energy into regaining it. He’s at his best in a corner. But after a while, you begin to notice that it is always the same person who puts him in the corner. There’s a Houdini element to the performance. Clinton allows himself to be bound in chains so that he can emerge to amazement and applause. He’s like a fireman whose hobby is arson.

The Clintonian loop of accomplishment, self-sabotage, and recovery means that whoever you are—a member of the public, a journalist covering him, an aide, his wife—it is impossible to maintain any kind of consistent attitude toward him. If you invest your hopes in him, he will disappoint you. If you fall in love with him, he will cheat on you. And if you decide you’re giving up on him once and for all, he will move heaven and earth to get you back. This routine, embedded since childhood, will continue until the day he dies. It played out most recently in the 2008 election. Clinton helped to undermine his wife’s presidential chances and infuriated even his most ardent defenders by diminishing Barack Obama’s primary victories and dismissing his popularity as a “fairy tale.” Through the first half of last year, everyone was completely disgusted with him. But the ex-president has been on his best behavior ever since, and we’ve all forgiven him once again

For an inside look at this cycle, enablers can now turn to a curious artifact, The Clinton Tapes. Taylor Branch, the author of a magisterial three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and a friend of Bill and Hillary’s from the 1972 McGovern campaign, coaxed the president into sitting for 79 recorded interviews spanning his eight years in office. The tapes were made as a historical record for unspecified future use. Clinton expected to draw upon them when he wrote his memoirs and eventually make them available to historians. Because of various sensitivities, the project was kept secret from all but a few essential helpers. Branch would meet the president in the White House residence, often late at night, and gently interrogate him about events of the previous weeks and months.

At the end of each session, Branch would hand his recordings over to his subject. Clinton kept the tapes but, true to form, procrastinated for so long on his memoirs that he finally had no time to make much use of them in churning out that windy doorstop. Branch, however, kept his own unofficial record of the unofficial record, dictating a reconstruction of each session immediately afterward, usually while driving back to his home in Baltimore. He draws on his version, for though the new book seems to come with Clinton’s tacit blessing, Branch did not have access to the actual tapes. To the mostly paraphrased account, he adds ruminations on his multiply conflicted role—friend, speechwriter, unpaid adviser, historian, journalist, and freelance advocate for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the ousted and then restored president of Haiti—but only minimal interpretation of his own.

A more apt subtitle for the book might have been “Wrestling with the president to get back to the point.” During his conversations with Branch, Clinton would sometimes stick to the chronicle and sometimes rage or ramble about whatever was on his mind—Bosnia, golf, Maureen Dowd, golf, the Razorbacks, Ken Starr, golf, and the bottomless category of miscellaneous but irrelevant. I did not know that Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, has a higher proportion of trees to landmass than any national capital other than Washington, D.C. Nor did I know that most players use an iron to cross the water hazard on a tricky par-4 hole at Deerfield Beach. At times, Clinton seems like someone trying to win the Trivia Bowl.

To wade through nearly 700 pages of such asides, meanderings, and tirades about the press is to relive in miniature the kind-of-interesting-kind-of-boring talkathon that was the Clinton presidency. In one meeting just after the catastrophic defeat of 1994, when the Democrats lost both houses of Congress because of Clinton’s tax increase, Branch arrives to find the president dead asleep in the barber’s chair. Clinton is roused with difficulty, then nods off some more while a tailor adjusts his suits to accommodate his swelling waistline. Woken again, he ranges brilliantly across matters domestic and international, but “again and again, he fell asleep while talking,” Branch records. Clinton’s endless stream of table talk has something of the same narcoleptic quality.

Yet Clinton wakes us up just as suddenly with fabulous tidbits: a drunken Yeltsin being restrained by the Secret Service outside Blair House in his underwear, yelling for a pizza; the president’s explanation of why the nuclear standoff over Kashmir in 1999 was so terrifying; Clinton pushing for his wife to be Al Gore’s running mate in 2000; Gore and Clinton shouting about who was to blame for Gore’s defeat. Some myths are dispelled for good. No one can finish this book believing that the relationship between the former president and the current secretary of state is anything like a political marriage of convenience, as opposed to a deep and resilient romantic connection. Nor can anyone come away thinking that Clinton is craven or makes decisions according to the polls.

Perhaps the most valuable revelation of Branch’s marathon sessions is the insight it gives us into the way Clinton understood governing. As president, he does not see leadership as managing a conflict between politics and principle. Rather, he views politics as the essential reality of any society. He and his fellow politicians are hedged in by their constituencies and the exigencies of staying in power, and they fail to recognize that at their peril. He is open with Branch about boundaries he dares not cross—on the Cuban embargo for example, where he acknowledges the impossibility of changing a worthless policy. Great politicians—he names Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein of Jordan, and Boris Yeltsin—are ones who recognize which boundaries are amenable to adjustment. Clinton takes pride in his own decisions against interest, such as his 1993 budget bill, the Brady gun control bill, the Mexican financial rescue, and military interventions in Haiti and the Balkans.

The politicians he disdains are those who pose or pander, fail to seize opportunity, or simply don’t have real fight in them. He cannot abide Benjamin Netanyahu, Yasser Arafat, Jacques Chirac, or Alia Itzetbegovic, who simply cannot say yes to a deal to end the Bosnian war. Clinton expresses repeated frustration with the late Pat Moynihan’s preening self-regard and is fairly scathing about Bill Bradley’s decision in 1995 to leave the Senate—”disgusted, in fact,” Branch writes, “by Bradley’s speeches proclaiming himself detached from both political parties and yet somehow uniquely in tune with the American people.” Colin Powell, Clinton notes in relief after Powell decides not to challenge him in 1996, is fundamentally risk-averse: “a career staff officer at heart.”

Branch recognizes one serious blind spot: Clinton’s inability to distinguish between the hostility of the press and the enmity of his political opponents. Clinton fixates on his great error in agreeing to a Whitewater special prosecutor, feeling that in so doing he surrendered to the New York Times and Washington Post. As the meritless accusations mount, Clinton feels victimized, casts blame indiscriminately, pouts, and grows increasingly self-pitying. Monica Lewinsky happened at his lowest moment—he just “cracked,” he tells Branch.

And so the cycle turns. That low moment, during the government shutdown at the end of 1995, was also when Clinton rediscovered his core liberal principles, his energy, and his voice, setting himself up for a stunning recovery in 1996. What looms as a downfall when the affair is exposed becomes another resurrection as he digs in, fights on, and faces down the threat of impeachment. In Clinton’s detached view, the attempted removal is less about him than about the politics of the Republican cloakroom. Once he figures that the underlying dynamic favors him, he loses interest in his own Senate trial.

Here, as elsewhere, Branch captures a resilient maximizer of opportunity at work. But like Clinton’s presidency, his book ultimately disappoints. This is the fault less of the author than of the subject, who was not willing to share the crown jewels—his actual recorded words—with his Boswell. Unlike the wonderful Kennedy and Johnson tapes, which Branch used extensively in his King biography, we don’t hear the president’s mesmerizing voice directly and thus—as Branch repeatedly regrets—don’t get the full passion and colloquial flavor of his description and analysis. Prolonged indirect exposure to Clinton’s insights, his footnotes to history, and his needy narcissism is by turns exhausting and awe-inspiring. Whenever we think he’s about to be finished, he’s got just one more thing to say.