The amazing thing about "The Clinton Tapes" is that it reveals Clinton's core idealism, as well as an intellectual and emotional complexity that escaped most of the journalists covering him and went far beyond the literate, seductive pop fantasy of "The West Wing." In this account, Clinton's all-out engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — "he knows every bus stop on the West Bank," Branch quips — for once takes precedence over the empty sex and real-estate scandals and salacious theorizing that dominated press coverage of his presidency long before Monica Lewinsky. And Clinton becomes his own best defender of his domestic policies, including his routing of the national debt.
As Branch writes, "He told Grieder he had done things already that no other president would do. He had raised taxes on the rich and lowered them for the working poor. He had introduced the AmeriCorps national service program, which Rolling Stone campaigned for, and established it in law.
He was taking on the gun lobby and the tobacco industry. ... He was fighting for national health coverage, and more, but [Clinton said] liberals paid very little attention to any of these things because they were bitchy and cynical about politics. They resented Clinton for respecting the votes of conservatives or the opinions of moderates.”
Branch's resolute honesty about his diverse roles within the Clinton saga imbues the book with a prismatic perspective. He ended up serving as speech-writing consultant, reluctant political counselor and, astonishingly, international go-between. He shuttled messages to and from Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, at one point, entered the impoverished country without a passport. (His only official ID was his driver's license.)
Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster