Lessons from the Clinton Tapes

[tweetmeme source=”ChazGunningham” only_single=false] I’ve just finished The Clinton Tapes, a 700 page coverage of 79 secret “taped diary meetings” President Bill Clinton had with old friend and ML King biographer Taylor Branch while Clinton was President.

It provides fascinating insight into a fascinating Presidency and equally fascinatingly flawed but magnetic individual. A human, after all. For Clinton had (and has) amazing qualities in communication, engagement and connection with people, a sharp intellect and deft political skills. When he left office, and all through the Lewinsky scandal, he had approval ratings over 60%. If he’d been allowed to run for a third time, he would have won hands down against George Bush Jnr.

The book was first published in 2009. Very few people knew Clinton was secretly taping his thoughts during his 2 terms, so it came out of the blue. What a risk to even do this (Nixon got into a heap of trouble when his secret recordings were discovered), especially as for most of his Presidency there was the ongoing Whitewater investigations (something he was completely cleared of) and the Paula Jones sexual harrassment case (also found to have no foundation). It was of course the Lewinsky affair (during the end of his first term) that overshadowed everything and made him only the second President to be impeached (although he was cleared by the Senate). Nixon resigned before the inevitable impeachment occurred.

Reading Clinton’s thoughts as he goes through the Presidency is a unique experience, for Clinton is not filling in history in hindsight (as all memoirs seek to do, repairing and retelling and spinning things), it is living and of the moment. Clinton does not know how the issues of the day would pan out, so you find yourself arguing with him, against him, cheering him on, and warning him off things. Indeed without Lewinsky, you wonder if he would be viewed as one of the greats, rather than the slight embarrassment many view him these days.

In the Middle East (something he gave a tremendous amount of time to) he came agonisingly close to a solution. Indeed, Arafat was basically offered a phenomenal deal by Israel, but “having got 100% of what he wanted, he smelled weakness and demanded 120%”. Israel baulked, and things went backwards from there, never to get that close again. Arafat would be dead a few years later.

On terrorism, Clinton was dealing the Osama bin Laden, hunting him down, lobbing missiles and freezing accounts well before 9/11. You want to shout at the page urging him on to defeat Al Qaeda; and if he’d got him, and 9/11 had not occurred, we would never have known the victory won, the lives, wars and trillions of dollars saved.

As the 1990s wore on, you saw the peace dividend of the post Cold War (pre 9/11) era. The economy was good. Clinton predicted zero government national debt by 2015 if they stayed the course he set. What the Americans would give for that now. As Hilary herself remarked during her own Presidential run four years ago: “I don’t know what people did not like about Bill’s Presidency – the peace or the prosperity?!”

Did Gore make a huge mistake distancing himself from Clinton during his own run in 2000? There is an awkward moment when Clinton recalls the anger Gore had of him, blaming Clinton for his own loss to George W. Meanwhile, Clinton tears into the Gore strategy during the campaign “letting that guy get away with lies on the Clinton-Gore record”. Gore decided not to run on the record, and so had little to say. Even so, Clinton believes if all the votes had been counted in Florida, Gore would have won.

I am still drawn to Bill C. He’s a mighty character, and has done some of his greatest work in the past 12 years. The Clinton Initiative has raised billions and tackled some of the largest global issues head on. Bill still has that charisma to draw people along. It’s that potent blend and attraction of a Kennedy, that always hits the rocks, yet is glamorous along with it.

It’s a fascinating read, and if anyone wants to borrow it, let me know.

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