The Cut Man: On Taylor Branch

The Cut Man: On Taylor Branch

Taylor Branch and a president’s prodigious appetite for vindication before the bar of history.


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."

That exchange eventually served as the brief for the oral history sessions collected in The Clinton Tapes–and just as clearly informs its lofty subtitle, "Wrestling History With the President." But it becomes clear over the many long pages of Branch’s chronicle that the author isn’t really wrestling alongside the chief executive to coax a myth-resistant account of Clinton and his record from the maw of history (and thus inevitably tussling at times with Clinton himself). Rather–to stretch sports metaphors a bit–he is serving as a cut man in the president’s corner, salving bruises and dispensing smelling salts before sending him back into the fray.

Branch’s odd deference to his fighter’s ring stratagems extends to the very format the book takes. Since the sessions were conceived as a notation system to aid Clinton in the composition of his memoir My Life, published in 2004, The Clinton Tapes is not a verbatim transcription of the Clinton-Branch sessions but rather an account of Branch’s executive summaries of the gatherings, which he usually dictated on the drive back from Washington to his home in Baltimore. (Public access to the tapes proper, meanwhile, has been complicated by Bush-era extensions of executive secrecy provisions, leaving chroniclers of the Clinton White House to rely inordinately on the necessarily partial and filtered inside accounts of Branch and Clinton.) While Branch is able to produce enormously detailed reconstructions of the content and settings of these confabs, the finished product here inevitably lacks the fuller, finer-grained vantage that a more lifelike Clinton, with distinctive patterns of speech and thought, would bring to the book. The effect, instead, is more like overhearing a muffled conversation through a flimsy wall–readers can closely follow the substance of the exchanges but cannot absorb their texture or appreciate their qualities of real-time give-and-take.

Being a cut man is a fine role for an intellectual ally to play in an administration–were Branch a sort of informal adviser, as was the case with several members of FDR’s brain trust or (for that matter) Schlesinger, who served as a ready sounding board for the New Frontier packaging of the Kennedy administration. But inevitably, Branch’s rooting interest in the Clinton White House overruns his more fastidious scholarly quest of "storing memories for history’s future." Early in Clinton’s first administration, for instance, the White House is keen to broker some viable scheme to return Haiti’s exiled, democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, back into power, and Branch, a longtime supporter of Haitian political reform, volunteers to serve as a go-between in negotiations. He ends up preparing a letter dictated by Aristide’s lawyer agreeing to an international coalition ensuring his return to the presidency without bloodshed, and then tracking it up the diplomatic food chain from national security adviser Anthony Lake to First Lady Hillary Clinton on through to the president. The president, whom Branch rouses from bed, is recovering from a bruising round of negotiations over Bosnia and trying to subdue a nasty case of conjunctivitis. It’s the sort of errand–nobly conceived and fruitfully dispatched though it was–that probably would have made Arthur Schlesinger blanch.

Much of The Clinton Tapes oscillates around odd gray areas like this, with Branch advising Clinton on campaign themes and State of the Union addresses, once even going so far as to deliver a personal note to Clinton–composed on the eve of Branch’s departure for Haiti in the company of a State Department delegation–warning him to "guard relentlessly against effects of a recurring dark mood that may endanger your chance for both historic and personal triumph." That melancholy outlook, Branch’s letter continued, stems from "your biggest weakness…a tendency to lump ‘the press’ together with your political opponents."

This was no doubt sound counsel–especially in view of the many stretches of The Clinton Tapes during which the president rails about the unfairness of the scandal-addled media. But one is hard pressed to think of even Clinton’s most trusted in-house advisers offering such blunt appraisals of his governing style and prospects for greatness. At such moments, Branch seems much less a Schlesinger than a Boswell–and even then, he plainly lacks Boswell’s eye for his biographical subject’s many foibles and imperfections. Instead he marvels at Clinton’s "grit and instinct" in navigating new relations with Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia and frets over Clinton’s "lonely foreboding" on the verge of his 1994 decision to invade Haiti to ensure Aristide’s return (a decision that Branch subsequently applauds in a congratulatory fax). As he dictates his recollections of an especially charged session with the president, Branch pulls away from the onrushing wonderment of it all to note, "I could only regret that my dictation summary wasn’t able to capture his bursting trails of rich language." As Clinton awaits final word on whether his unpopular decision to proceed with massive NATO air attacks on the Serbian strongholds in Kosovo will yield a peace accord, Branch notes that the president "quivered with restrained excitement, like a racehorse in the gate."

The real problem with Branch’s unqualified admiration for his subject doesn’t so much arise from the tiresome nonissue of the "bias" employed by this or that interlocutor of power. Rather, it’s that Branch’s adulation all too often stills his voice before gaping contradictions in the president’s political self-image and ideological makeup. For instance, not long after the landslide election of the Gingrich Congress’s Republican majority in 1994, Clinton sketches out his tactical response: a Middle Class Bill of Rights, predicated on targeted tax cuts to salve the rampant antigovernment sentiment in the electorate. Reviewing the beatings he took on healthcare reform and the tax hike to remedy the deficits bequeathed by the George H.W. Bush White House, Clinton explained to Branch (who offered a characteristically tepid objection to the cuts as a grievous conceptual downgrading of the original Bill of Rights) that GOP "distortions deprived him of public credit for the budget achievement while torpedoing his health bill to boot. He dissected these lessons, then abruptly reversed course to embrace the propaganda. He would imitate Republican salesmanship to give the voters a borrowed gift. To do so, he would make middle-class tax cuts the centerpiece of his legislative program in the upcoming State of the Union Address."

And so he did–replete with the sound bite that "the era of big government is over," a concession of ideological turf so stunning that the editors of The Weekly Standard characterized it with a gloating two-word cover headline: "We Win." Yet in Branch’s chronicle, that selfsame cynical GOP mimic turns up a scant forty pages later, seconding Hillary’s assessment that "Democrats were afraid to stand up" to GOP mischaracterizations of deficit politics, pouting that not a single Democratic House member had called to congratulate Clinton on a major budget speech. (That aside, in turn, yields an appraisal from Hillary of the party’s then-majority leader in the House, who turned down a call from Clinton about the speech: "Gephardt is an asshole.")

Similarly, when discussing the court proceedings concerning the horrifying case of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who died in Jasper, Texas, after being tied to a pickup truck and dragged behind it for three miles, Clinton perks up when Branch notes that the convicting jury in the capital case was mostly white. That was good, the president replied–"he perceived a side benefit for the death penalty in the fair and impartial conviction of white supremacists for capital crimes against black victims. Such progress would reduce the empirical bias in executions–a victimization by race, controlling for all other factors–which could answer a principal line of argument against capital punishment." The callousness of this appraisal–essentially an argument that equitably administered racial justice is a particular boon when it permits the state to slaughter more convicts–is especially striking, coming as it does from a politician who elected not to stop the execution of a mentally impaired black Arkansas inmate named Ricky Ray Rector (who declared his intent to save part of his last meal "for later") as a campaign stunt during the 1992 Democratic primaries, to fend off "soft on crime" charges from rivals in hard-fought moderate and conservative states. Branch, an unparalleled chronicler of the modern moral crusade for racial justice, only notes with typical diffidence that he watched this monologue unspool "to my discomfort."

Discomfort doesn’t begin to capture the mood in sessions devoted to the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. "I think I just cracked," was Clinton’s appraisal of his conduct. "He felt sorry for himself," Branch notes in a world-class understatement, and then reels off the bewildering litany of culprits the president blamed for the dalliance. "When this thing started with Lewinsky in 1995, he had gone through a bad run of people dying at the start–his mother, Vince Foster, Yitzhak Rabin–plus the mean-spirited investigations of him and Hillary and everybody else. Oh, and they ran over him with the ‘Contract With America’ and took the Congress. He had just cracked. He said he could have done worse. He could have blown something up." But in lieu of plumbing the psyche of a president openly pondering military force as an antidote to political setbacks, sudden deaths and special-prosecutor slights (or indeed, a president whose form of cracking under such scrutiny is to give his pursuers exactly the base conduct they’re looking for), Branch again laments the damage wrought on the president’s image for posterity. After Clinton "had come so close to proving all the scandals baseless," he ruefully tells Clinton, "Lewinsky alone vindicated cynicism."

But things were nowhere near that simple. Clinton could have followed his lawyers’ advice and settled the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit–the underlying proceeding that permitted independent counsel Kenneth Starr to employ Lewinsky’s affair with the president as a perjury trap in the Whitewater inquiry. Indeed, one of the many ironies of the overlapping scandals was that the Jones suit got thrown out of court midway through the Lewinsky inquiry–but by then it was the behavior of Bill Clinton, not the architects of the Contract With America or the assassin of Rabin, that stoked the labors of his many political and legal pursuers. One of course can’t expect Branch’s real-time discussions with the president to get to the bottom of what remains an unfathomable, and perhaps pathological, feature of the man’s character. But it’s surpassingly odd for Branch to shrug off the exchange–"we were briefly a miserable sight"–and then launch his next chapter with an account of a spirited game of hearts with the Clintons and George McGovern after a black-tie affair Branch attended with his wife, Christy (by then a speechwriter for Hillary). I guess that’s what everyone at the time meant by "moving on."

For all the distasteful impressions kicked up in such interludes, the Clinton in Branch’s behind-the-scenes account comes off best, oddly enough, as an international power broker. His tormented search for a viable international coalition to stanch the horrific ethnic violence in Bosnia–seeking to contain cynical posturing from Western powers such as France–points up the genuine uncertainties of piecing together a post-cold war global consensus on humanitarian intervention. Clinton’s successful peace overtures in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, show him as a resolute and far-seeing interlocutor in a dismal conflict, understanding that, as he tells Branch, "in that part of the world…public wisdom ran well ahead of the politicians." And his desperate efforts to salvage a lasting agreement out of the Oslo Accords show Clinton testing the outer reaches of imaginative diplomacy–carving out face-saving opportunity after face-saving opportunity for Yasir Arafat and Rabin’s successors in Israel, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, to trade land for peace while playing to their hardline constituencies back home. Of course, these overtures succumb, as all proposed deals before and since have, to the obdurate delusions on the ground generated on both sides since Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank began in 1967. But Clinton exhausts all manner of diplomatic end-run strategies to keep the talks going; at one impasse, over Netanyahu’s petty and self-defeating refusal to permit Palestinians to erect industrial parks in Gaza out of overblown fears that the resources would be diverted to terrorist activity, Branch records that Clinton was "near despair…. I could not remember seeing him this upset."

Yet even on the foreign stage, Clinton could all too readily let his domestic political preoccupations crowd out the larger picture. As Secretary of State Warren Christopher continues thrashing out the Dayton framework for a Bosnian peace, for example, Clinton frets over the political beating he’d take with the resumption of war. "When the killing starts, it’s bad for my administration," he fumes–a less-than-statesmanlike posture for someone hammering out a bid to stem the spread of genocide in the West. More oddly still, when the NATO airstrikes on Kosovo are about to yield a ceasefire agreement, Clinton’s initial appraisal to Branch is that "Kosovo would be the first American war without a cheerleader in the press"–as though that consideration alone were a measure of the mission’s virtue.

Indeed, throughout Branch’s chronicle, Clinton comes off as the most media-obsessed chief executive this country has had since Richard Nixon. To be sure, the Clinton-era press had an unusually vacuous, content-challenged appetite for any whiff of scandal, from Whitewater to "Travelgate" to the Wen Ho Lee fiasco. But when a Clinton ally as stout as Branch is driven to draft a personal note to Clinton to tamp down his tantrums against the press, the president is clearly struggling with an immense loss of his sense of proportion. As Nixon had before him, Clinton complains bitterly that journalists are invested in misguided perceptions of his political nature that overlook his true character. "How could the initiator of lasting controversy be portrayed as a changeling?" he laments to Branch at one point. "How could he take so many unpopular stands and yet stand for nothing? If anything, he stood for too much."

Such complaints have to leave anyone with an intact memory of Clinton’s actual governing style more than a little slack-jawed. Our New Democratic leader did, in fact, make a persistent habit of trimming policy directives and political will to prevailing ideological winds. Clinton signed the GOP Congress’s Defense of Marriage Act, for instance, for no other reason than to secure his re-election. He did so in an after-midnight, closed-work session, so as to symbolize his abstract disapproval of the measure while casting aside the civil rights of a long-persecuted minority–a fastidious display that did not, of course, prevent him from airing campaign ads touting his support of DOMA on evangelical radio stations in swing states. With similar self-serving brio, Clinton slashed federal income support, endorsing the Gingrich Congress’s version of welfare reform–and then campaigned on a promise to "fix" the very legislation he had signed into law.

But such gambits scarcely register in a book that records outburst after outburst from the nation’s most powerful leader inveighing against the concerted persecution campaigns that were supposedly stymieing his good will–and spreading toxic "cynicism" throughout the American political culture as a woeful side effect. In one show of high-Nixonian dudgeon, Clinton even decries a far-reaching ideological press conspiracy to fan the flames of the Whitewater scandal. "The whole thing was stacked against him," Branch writes, "nor was it an accident that these persecutions had reared up just in time to spoil his hard-won political gains." In a strategy session with a Whitewater lawyer Branch finds himself listening in on, Clinton urges that the administration go on the warpath in striking down scandalmongering from the press. "Both to me and to his lawyer on the phone, he railed against the stance of patient cooperation. He called it naïve, vowing to fight. ‘I’m tired of this limp-dick shit’…. Clinton pleaded for an aggressive army. ‘I want somebody to stand up to these people,’ he cried. ‘This is ridiculous.’"

It’s easy to be lulled by such outcries–the press is besotted with inert scandal coverage, and Starr, together with scores of professional Clinton haters on the right, did manipulate those appetites to keep the appearance of chronic wrongdoing percolating throughout the Clinton years. But for the possessor of the presidency’s bully pulpit to insist that the "whole thing was stacked against him" strains even the most stalwart kind of progressive credulity. No American president could ever be that powerless; take the executive branch’s own approval of the Whitewater independent counsel’s open-ended inquiry (a move that Hillary, a far savvier attorney and a veteran of the House impeachment inquiry in the Nixon years, forcefully opposed). And Hillary herself mounted the aggressive counterassault Clinton longed for at the outset of the Lewinsky scandal, railing against the "vast right-wing conspiracy"–together with no end of surrogate Clinton defenders who tirelessly worked the media rounds on Clinton’s behalf, until he hung them all out to dry with his grand jury testimony conceding that he had misled the country about the affair. There’s a fitting kind of symmetry in the odd sight that Branch reports during a session with the president as Middle East negotiators try yet again to hammer out a framework for peace at the 2000 Camp David talks: Clinton is relaxing with his daughter during a lunch break, wearing a T-shirt with the legend "Trust me, I’m a reporter"–a slogan that has since been adopted by professional media-bias spotters on the right who fancy themselves victims of an Obama-besotted press conspiracy. The players always change in the media grievance business, but the mottoes remain the same.

In the cold afterglow of the aughts, as a debt-defiled nation strains to believe in a jobs-challenged recovery predicated mainly on bank bailouts, one gaping exception to the all-purpose theory of Clinton media persecution is impossible to miss. The Clinton administration got the freest possible ride from the media in economic affairs, once Clinton did his appointed New Democrat duty, scotching his long-promised first-term stimulus package in favor of a deficit-reducing tax plan and finding common cause with Fed chief Alan Greenspan to manage financial policy in the interests of the investor class. Those critical concessions, combined with the gossamer paper wealth kicked up in the Web 1.0 economy, had the entire financial press swooning in adoration of the White House’s grown-up managerial savvy. The DLC-groomed president relished that sort of approbation, noting to Branch at one point during budget negotiations with Congressional Republicans that "they hate getting schooled on the real world by rich Democrats," such as his Goldman Sachs-trained treasury secretary, Robert Rubin. When Clinton signed into law the two pieces of deregulatory financial legislation that made the 2008 economic meltdown not only possible but a near certainty–the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which smashed the barrier separating investment and commercial banking that FDR’s administration had enforced with the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act to prevent a repeat of the massive bank failures of the Great Depression, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which cleared the way for exotic derivative products like credit default swaps–only cranky economic wonks and marginal leftists raised much of a fuss.

Clinton pauses ever so briefly in the sessions that make up The Clinton Tapes to mention Rubin and his quarterbacking of economic policy. The occasion is the secretary’s resignation in 1999 to return to the moneyed spires of Wall Street, where he landed a roving executive post at Citigroup, the newly reconfigured investment-cum-commercial banking colossus that could exist, legally, only under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley law, which Rubin aggressively lobbied for from his Treasury perch. Only that’s not how Clinton apostrophizes the great man. He notes that Rubin "left the opulent world of investment banking to defend a vast, endangered middle class"–and that he’s quite grateful for Rubin’s diehard loyalty throughout the Lewinsky affair. Here, clearly, is a man with "a sense for what mattered," and who not surprisingly endorsed the view that "politics was a distasteful scrum."

More recently, of course, the high-minded former Treasury guru has presided over the collapse of his beloved new hybrid megabank–even though he’s netted more than $110 million in bonuses as its stock has been devalued by a factor of ten, from $50 to $5 a share. If that–and the allied multiple meltdowns that have besieged Rubin’s re-engineered finance sector–represents the fruit of a master plan to rescue the "vast, endangered middle class," I guess we should be grateful the guy didn’t deliberately attempt to lay waste the economy. Then again, it’s hard to see how the results would be much different in that scenario. If granting free rein to such plainly interested parties is truly the price of securing a modern, management-minded Democratic Party and conquering "cynicism" in our ever-delicate public discourse, why, then, bring on the distasteful scrums and the scandal-minded press. But then again, why trust me? I’m a reporter.


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