A history of the Bill Clinton years based on taped interviews with the president while he was in office.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Branch (At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968, 2006, etc.) approaches the story of Clinton’s administration from a unique angle. As a longtime friend of the family, in 1993 the author agreed to assist in recording what was, in effect, Clinton’s secret diary. In 79 informal sessions, held sporadically until 2001, Clinton talked spontaneously about recent events, aiming to create an unfiltered, on-the-spot record of events for future historians. The interviews cover a lot of ground: the president’s failed health-care reform, the conflict in Bosnia, the Whitewater controversy, the 1996 reelection campaign and much more. Because Branch is very much Clinton’s friend, however, he doesn’t get below the president’s well-polished surface when it comes to uncomfortable topics. For example, the president was standoffish on the subject of Monica Lewinsky, and Branch was simply too polite to press him on it. The few unguarded episodes—including the time Clinton dozed off in the middle of a taping session due to his exhaustion in the wake of the Democrats’ crushing defeat in the 1994 Congressional elections, or when he recalled his final visit with his beloved mother, shortly before her death—are the most riveting aspects of the book. But there aren’t many surprises here—Clinton, after all, used the tapes as reference material for his 2004 memoir—and Branch’s interest in minutiae, such as descriptions of delays he faced when he went to visit the president, slow the narrative. Presidential history buffs will certainly appreciate the you-are-there, nuts-and-bolts account of the Clinton administration, but Branch fails to capture an honest portrait of a man who may be, ultimately, unknowable.
A one-of-a-kind—though not particularly revealing—perspective on the Clinton presidency.