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In 'The Clinton Tapes,' Bill Clinton Disses Bush, Dowd, Gore and More

5 years ago
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The UPS man said he wished everyone were as excited to see him at their door as I was when he put that Teddy Kennedy memoir, "True Compass,'' in my hands last week. But it's just as well that I wasn't home when he dropped off Taylor Branch's forthcoming "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President.'' Because having been assigned to write about such historical figures as Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp for The New York Times, my initial reaction to Clinton's gazillion hours of yakking to Branch was I've seen that movie, thanks -- and some of it was tedious the first time. (In the book, our 42nd president complains not a little – hard to believe, right? -- about being dragged through toxic sludge by the press. To which I say: Backatcha, Bubba.)
Nevertheless, the old hound dog does get off some good ones. He tells a hilarious story about Boris Yeltsin being discovered on a street corner in the middle of the night during a visit to Washington, trying to hail a cab in his underwear and babbling about wanting a pizza. And he cracks that columnist Maureen Dowd "must live in mortal fear that there's somebody in the world living a healthy and productive life.''

As we might have guessed, he feels sorry for himself over his affair with Lewinsky: "I think I just cracked,'' he repeats to Branch over and over, by way of explaining his relationship with the onetime White House intern. But that's not his most surprising occasion of self-pity; apparently, even appointing Supreme Court justices can be a drag: "I felt like Diogenes wandering in Athens,'' he said, "asking, 'Where is there an honest man I can give this job to?"

As president, he took the threat posed by Osama bin Laden with appropriate seriousness, remarking darkly that he hoped he would survive known plots against him during a trip to Bangladesh and Pakistan in the spring of 2000.

Though we think of Clinton as this genius political strategist, in Branch's book, some of his assessments are pretty standard, and others waaaay out of the box. First, we see him relishing George W. Bush's primary contest with John McCain in 2000: "Both Bush and McCain hated him. He did not mean to take up for either one, but he thought the objective performance was clear. These two Republicans were mirror candidates. Bush was unqualified to be president, said Clinton, but he had shrewd campaign instincts. McCain might make a good president, but he had no idea how to run.''

But here's one no one saw coming: Clinton seems to have held the unique view that Al Gore's ideal running mate in 2000 would have been . . . Barbara Mikulski. "It was not Gore's style to take big risks, said the president, which ruled out Clinton's favorite wild-card candidate, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. No one supported or even mentioned her for vice president, but he was not joking. He conceded that my home state senator might produce shockwaves of disbelief at first. Mikulski was well under five feet tall, with a frumpy figure and beer-hall voice. Still . . . She was feisty. . . She had done more with her talents than many other women.'' (Italics denoting disbelief that anyone thinks of this guy as a feminist even now are mine all mine.) Though I would have eagerly tuned in for a Mikulski-Cheney debate.

Another highlight in the book is Clinton's version of a two-hour conversation he had with Gore after George W. Bush became president -- a conversation that, by Clinton's own account, Gore "tried to begin on a conciliatory note.'' Before long, though, Clinton was ticking off various scenarios for how Gore could have won the darn election if he'd only been willing to put the prez to work on the campaign trail, and Gore bitterly returned that Clinton's own behavior had made that impossible. "The president kept telling me their confrontation was surreal,'' Branch wrote. "The whole world thinks Gore ran a poor campaign from a strong hand. Yet Gore thinks he had a weak hand because of Clinton, and ran a valiant campaign against impossible odds.''

During this same air-clearing session, the former vice president "wanted Clinton to know that the Buddhist temple fund-raising scandal had been the worst experience of his life . . . he found himself the only English-speaking person at one of those Asian fund-raisers. And the president was in charge of the party apparatus that was supposed to screen all the donations for trouble. So he did blame Clinton in a way.''

Clinton dismissively said of Gore, "I thought he was living in Neverland.'' And he was furious that Gore still wanted some kind of an explanation -- and a personal apology -- for the Lewinsky matter. (Instead, Clinton accused him of phony and misplaced outrage; if Hillary could run for the Senate on their administration's record, why couldn't Gore have done the same?)

Sometimes, Clinton seems mystified by his wife, too; in one scene Branch describes, he gets off the phone with her and declares, "You know, I've had a lot more contact with gay people in my life than Hillary.''

"He sighed,'' Branch continued. "Her temperament had a conservative, religious core, formed before homosexual issues were even mentionable.''

At another point in the book, Branch writes that Hillary put the kibosh on the president's suggestion of extending an invitation to Sally Quinn, the Washington Post writer married to the paper's former editor, Ben Bradlee. Because according to Hillary, Quinn had been spreading untrue rumors that Hillary had been carrying on with a female veterinarian.

Which reminds me why I can't wait to get back to the Kennedy book. Side by side, the two tomes illustrate atonement versus self-justification and reconciliation versus retribution; 707 pages of the latter is an awful lot.

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