Friday, January 29, 2010

Bill Clinton and his historian

The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President is an oddity. The respected historian Taylor Branch (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63) knew Bill and Hillary Clinton from way back in the trenches of George McGovern's ill-fated Presidential run. They weren't close, but there was trust. So when Clinton wanted to record real time accounts of his presidency for posterity (and his memoirs), Branch agreed to act as the interviewer in a secret oral history project. Over nearly 80 sessions, Branch prodded and encouraged the President to expound on what he was doing and what he cared about. Clinton kept the tapes (hidden away in a sock drawer from prying lawyers as the Republican's legal witch hunt against him increased in intensity), but after each round of talk, Branch made his own notes on Clinton's musings. This is the book Branch has made from those notes.

For me, reading this amounted to catching up on a decade in which I paid little attention to Washington. California was fighting, via ballot initiatives, over how to live through the transition from a majority white state into its multi-racial reality. There was lots of local work to do. I retained only three strong impressions of the Clinton presidency: 1) that many progressive friends were overly hopeful in 1992 and much disillusioned soon thereafter; 2) that Clinton was willing to gash the safety net for poor women and children by signing a Republican "welfare reform"; and 3) that the guy squandered his term because he couldn't keep his dick in his pants. Obviously I was not a Clinton fan.

This book did give me a more nuanced and somewhat more appreciative sense of Clinton. I do politics. Even if I don't much like them, I respect people who can engage in political struggles with clear sight and without personal rancor -- idealism is essential, but passions need balance or will turn sour. How could I not warm to a guy of whom Branch concludes:

He loved politics so much that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats. ... He wanted to deal with the politics, win, lose or draw, because he loved it. He loved being with the people who hated him!

Those are qualities we need in a President, plus a self-confident maturity that Clinton didn't have. The current one might even be so well-balanced as to be a little scary.

Mostly during the 1990s, I ignored Washington's foreign activities. Like most folks my age, I was a little confused about the implications of the sudden collapse of my lifetime's permanent U.S. enemy, the whole Soviet bloc. And I don't think I was alone; actually, I think official policy was nearly as adrift as we the citizens. Certainly we didn't get any "peace dividend" -- remember that hope?

Consequently, I found this book interesting for its accounts of that decade's turmoil in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and especially Haiti, a country that gets more attention than it would have otherwise because Branch had a friendly acquaintance with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Clinton believed he took huge political risks when he restored Aristide to (a constrained) power after generals had overthrown him. His advisors and opinion polls wanted no U.S. involvement:

[General Colin] Powell was telling him that Haiti was a worthless, miserable country, governable only by the military...He explained to me that national polls had favored a U.S. invasion of Haiti briefly ... when thousands of desperate Haitians were washing up on the shores of Florida. ...The Coast Guard started diverting refugees to Guantanamo. People had cared about the refugees because they were black, and now they don't care because Haiti is black. "We've got racism working against us instead of for us," the president fumed. ...

I have to wonder whether we'll see a replay of this over the next few years -- or perhaps this is a slightly different nation. Meanwhile, it bodes well that Clinton (and Mrs. Clinton) are deeply involved again in Haitian relief.

Branch's book lags at times; it is very long and, like the conversations themselves, not tightly constructed. Many people will not be so indulgent of Clinton's weaknesses as Branch became. But it seems an honorable contribution to history's first draft.

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