America’s unfortunate habit of electing horrible Republican chief executives to consecutive terms in office has created an odd distorting effect that redounds to the great benefit of their predecessors. It’s all too easy to succumb to the fantasy that the Carter years weren’t all that bad, comparatively speaking–the well-meaning Georgian scold didn’t gleefully sack the public treasury the way that Ronald Reagan did, nor did he preside over epic scandals such as Iran/Contra or the savings and loan debacle. Yes, during the Carter era the country suffered rampant inflation, skyrocketing energy costs, interest rates north of 20 percent and foreign policy paralysis, but hey, at least the guy wasn’t Reagan.
Likewise, the venality, abuses of power and rank incompetence of the George W. Bush era have spurred an entirely pardonable Clinton nostalgia in progressive circles. Even the pundits who, in real time, stood among the lustiest and pettiest pursuers of our forty-second president, such as Time magazine’s Joe Klein, duly revised their jaundiced view of William Jefferson Clinton and his excesses with the briskness of a well-oiled weather vane. In 2003, seven years after Klein cashed in with the dishonestly packaged pseudonymous novel Primary Colors, he produced a market-correcting study of Clinton’s "misunderstood presidency" called, naturally, The Natural. Sure, Clinton might be a self-involved boomer narcissist who was instrumental in jolting the Republican Revolution into gear, the conventional wisdom now had it, but hey, at least the guy wasn’t Bush.
The glib interchangeability of these sentiments bespeaks their superficiality. Pundit-posturing retains its improbably long half-life largely because of the short memories of its intended audience–and the ability of the practitioners of the art never to hold any provisional view of anything too firmly, or for very long. One would hope that Taylor Branch’s sprawling book The Clinton Tapes could restore some much-needed balance to the rearview vision of the Clinton years. Here, after all, are the unfiltered reflections of Clinton himself, delivered in seventy-nine taped sessions during his tumultuous administration. What’s more, Branch, author of a splendid three-volume study of the civil rights revolution–the second installment of which, Pillar of Fire, was published in 1998, near the end of his sojourns to the White House–seems ideally positioned to guard the interests of public memory against a president’s prodigious appetite for vindication before the bar of history.
True, Branch is an old confrere of Clinton’s. The two men, together with Clinton’s then-girlfriend Hillary Rodham, shared an apartment in Austin, Texas, in 1972, when they were all doing advance work in the state for the McGovern campaign. But they had fallen out of touch until Clinton’s election in 1992, and Branch smartly rebuffed Clinton’s initial overture, shortly after his inauguration, to serve as "an Arthur Schlesinger"–an uncritical court historian–for his fledgling presidency. When Clinton groused about the press’s fixation on "bogus scandals," such as an alleged grounding of flights at LAX while the president got an expensive haircut on board Air Force One, Branch delicately noted that such grievances were not really the stuff of posterity. "I said he would do well to distinguish between short-term and long-term problems," Branch recalls. "He should concentrate on making the best history he could. No president can script the future by controlling its writers or themes, but every president can govern with an eye on tomorrow. That means navigating politics, including relations with the press, and it recommends gathering detailed records vibrant enough to help posterity establish truth over myth."