Christopher Hitchens: Inside Bill Clinton's Mind

The 42nd president of the United States was not infrequently accused of being needy, greedy, and tantrum-prone, as well as over-fond of fast or junk food. But try this, about his Muscovite counterpart, from an entry dated Oct. 18, 1994:

"Yeltsin did not always cope with the pressure. President Clinton said Yeltsin's chronic escapes into alcohol were far more serious than the cultivated pose of a jolly Russian. They were worrisome for political stability, as only luck had prevented scandal or worse on both nights of this visit. Clinton had received notice of a major predawn security alarm when Secret Service agents discovered Yeltsin alone on Pennsylvania Avenue, dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi. Yeltsin slurred his words in a loud argument with the baffled agents. He did not want to go back into Blair House, where he was staying. He wanted a taxi to go out for pizza. I asked what became of the standoff. 'Well,' the president said, shrugging, 'he got his pizza.' "

One has to respect a reporter who can (a) bring off a deadpan description of such a hair-raising event, and (b) keep such a sensational scoop to himself for 15 years. Taylor Branch's latest book has made me whistle more than any comparable piece of work for a very long time, and not just because of its many remarkable disclosures. (On the ensuing night, you may care to know, a plastered Yeltsin managed to escape Blair House security again, and was—in Branch's understated account—"briefly endangered." So we almost but not quite had to read about the leader of post-communist Russia being shot down while the guest of an American president undergoing a midterm election.)

One of the classic cartoon representations of the human dilemma shows a man with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each of them whispering into one ear. Those who followed the eight tempestuous years of the William Jefferson Clinton presidency often thought they had worked out who in this picture played the role of seductive demon. That would be Dick Morris, forever counseling a new poll and a new compromise and playing the tempter with visions of "triangulation": an infinity of possible horse trades (and fundraisers).

But now it turns out that on the other epaulet was perched the principled figure of Taylor Branch, not at all claiming to be a harp-strummer himself but insistently reminding his old friend that there were better angels in politics and humanity whose claims should not be scorned. Branch is now justly famous for raising a noble edifice of work about the United States in the era of Martin Luther King, but back in 1972 it was essentially he and "Bill" who had drawn the short straw of organizing the McGovern campaign in the snake-strewn landscape of the Texas Democratic Party. When Clinton broke his party's losing streak in 1992, he turned straight to Branch to ask him to be the confidential chronicler of his White House. Their talks were so secret that no one other than Nancy Hernreich, Clinton's official scheduler, even knew they took place. When he was in the mood or had time, Clinton would call Branch at his home in Baltimore, and Branch would drive down with two tape recorders, set them up on a table somewhere private in the White House, and start the conversation. Branch himself has never heard the tapes. After each session, he would turn them over to Clinton—who hid the cassettes in his sock drawer—while Branch would tape his own memories of their talks on the drive back home. The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the Presidentis the consequence.

It seems from Branch's narrative that he hardly knew about the influence of Dick Morris (you can tell this from the number of times that Clinton indignantly denies to him the rumors about any such thing), and I would also guess that Morris in turn had no idea that a diehard 1960s liberal had the president's ear on 79 occasions between 1993 and 2001. But for Branch another problem of principle started to obtrude itself at once. Clinton didn't just want to kibitz or to confide. He also wanted untainted advice. Was it fair to exploit the old friendship in this way? Branch fairly rapidly decided that it was.

To read this account is to be transported back to a time when a visitor could park a pickup truck fairly near the White House, when Al Qaeda was a nasty rumor, and when Saddam Hussein was supposedly "contained." On the other hand, it is also to be transported back to a time when national health care was the most contentious issue in politics and when many prominent Republicans thought that the federal government would be better off being shut down. Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center are still undamaged when the tapes start whirring. (Other things, by contrast, retain their old shape. Clinton tells Branch that the embargo on Cuba is a "foolish, pandering failure" but seems unable to do anything to lift it, while the ruling Assad dynasty in Damascus apparently has access to the State Department and the White House at all times. There is daily concern about the volatility of Israeli politics and the spread of irritating yet apparently somehow unstoppable Jewish "settlements.")

As one who did not at all admire this president when he was in office, I feel bound to say that his opinions and actions as recorded here are far better than I would ever have supposed. In conversation, Clinton demonstrates an innate sense of the irreversible nature of globalization, and of the necessary interdependence of nations that it brings in its train. Yet he and Branch devote an astonishing amount of time to two islands at the periphery of the world's economy: Ireland and Haiti. And in each instance, questions of right and wrong occupy more of the discussion than you might guess. Yeah, right, an elected Democrat is hardly going to lose votes by advocating Irish unity. But Clinton (and his best adviser on the Irish question, Nancy Soderberg) made a critical wager that Gerry Adams was serious about abandoning "armed struggle," and they were prepared to risk the outraged amour-propre of a historic British ally. Returning from a later trip to Belfast and Dublin, when it's become clear that the policy has exceeded expectation, Clinton compels one's sympathy by glowingly telling his old friend that just "a few days like that" can make a whole political life seem worthwhile.

There was never a chance that the sending of American forces to Haiti could garner a single vote, and Branch was clearly somewhat queasy about imploring Clinton to use force to restore the exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. (This episode is the only one about which he has gone into print already.) The people of Haiti have a real friend in Branch, who understands the role their revolution played in the survival of our own, and to acknowledge the debt that we have incurred through decades of alternate bullying and neglect. Whether Aristide was ever the solution to this impasse I don't know, but the anguished exchanges between Clinton and his passionate friend, and the eventual commitment to try again for a new start in Haiti, are strangely moving. If Branch had a conscience about using his private influence to change American foreign policy, he can at least claim that he employed the "access" on behalf of some of the most wretched and exploited people on earth.

But the temper tantrums, about which we did already know, are much less interesting in retrospect than Clinton's love of the sheer game—of Washington this time—for its own sake. Many are the moments when Branch is aghast at apparent right-wing partisanship, and his old pal tells him, in effect, that if the roles were reversed he'd be employing the same tactics himself. "I told them they've got to submit their budget … They've got to come to work. They've got to quit just talking. All they've gotten right is the politics." There must be a few Republicans who regret not grasping this point as far back as 1993. Another noteworthy moment is the equanimity of Clinton about the possibility that he could face a second-term electoral challenge from the chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Had this ever happened since Gen. George McClellan took on Abraham Lincoln? Was it possible that civilian control of the military was once again an issue?) On the differences between Bill Clinton and Colin Powell, from allowing gays in the military to authorizing the use of force against Serbian militias in Bosnia, Branch shows that the president was at all times completely pragmatic and yet in some odd way also aware of the larger matters involved. Winston Churchill's famous observation that Americans always do the right thing, but not until they have exhausted every possible alternative, could have been coined with Clinton in mind.

Branch intermittently lightens the story by mentioning, quite often without sentimentality, the growth of both men's children over the eight years. He allows himself only two revisions that I could count. One is a pithy seven-letter verdict on the character of Dick Gephardt, pronounced by the first lady, that Branch erased from the tapes in the Clintons' presence but is restored here. The other is the wry reflection that when the Gingrich Republicans briefly closed the federal government, they necessitated the recruitment of temporary workers and part-time interns such as Monica Lewinsky. A more ironic writer would have pointed out that by this accidental means the GOP eventually did get Clinton where it wanted him, and made him do to himself what his worst enemies could not accomplish. For the amazingly sincere Taylor Branch, it came as a visceral shock that Clinton eventually confessed (almost) everything, and did so just when Mrs. Branch had loyally gone to work for Mrs. Clinton. The "Friends of Bill," who had many times heard him swear that his bad old ways would not embarrass them yet again, were mostly without words on this occasion. I like the way that Branch confesses his own naiveté here, just as I admire the manner in which he describes turning up to the Democratic convention in Chicago, having disbelieved the Dick Morris rumors, only to find the name MORRIS placarded on the door just opposite his own hotel room.

On the question of Jacques Chirac's personality you may feel that you can now afford to relax. But might you not want to check and make sure? Early impressions of Benjamin Netanyahu are also perhaps even more absorbing in retrospect. On the loathing of Clinton for Saddam Hussein (as expressed to a young person on a golf course), you can consult the index and conceivably be surprised. I cannot say that Branch has written this beautifully. In a passage of a few hundred words he manages to say "tenterhooks," "gauntlets," "crackdowns," "standoffs," "brokered," "key," and even "upped" (as in "ante"), and though I have an idea what "loggerhead" means, I cannot tell you how to visualize, let alone define, a "rock ribbed panacea." However, and perhaps partly because of its lack of adornment, Branch's rather touching volume may inaugurate a new form of oral history. In this mode, a literal form of contemporaneous White House recording is undertaken by a second party. This second party's honesty and even innocence act as a check on the opportunism and evasiveness of the subject, who would never have tried to tell his old comrade from the civil-rights movement that anything depended on the meaning of "is."