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Bill Clinton's shrewd move: Giving Taylor Branch a front seat to history

October 5, 2009 | 12:17 pm


Taylor Branch is a prize-winning biographer -- he won the Pulitzer for "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1953-1963" -- and when he was invited by Bill Clinton to help record the activities of his fledgling administration, he had to say yes. The two met 79 times from 1992 to 2001, tape recording their meetings, after which Clinton would sock away the tapes -- really. He hid them in his sock drawer.

Without access to those tapes, Branch has reconstructed his experience from his notes in the 720-page "The Clinton Tapes," reviewed in our Sunday pages.

For a lesser historian, this skewered arrangement would be quite a handicap. Who wants secondhand Clinton when the Arkansan is on national television regularly talking about himself? But "The Clinton Tapes" proves to be a remarkable read, paying out the huge dividends of history that Branch had hoped for. And as a corollary, Clinton's long-term reputation is bound to take an upward revisionist spike because of this important publication. Love him or hate him, as Branch makes abundantly clear, Clinton was always on the job. Furthermore, with the advantage of hindsight, Clinton's anti-deficit crusade looks downright heroic -- as does his Herculean effort to bring human rights to Haiti and Africa.

Clinton is in Los Angeles today, voicing his support for gubernatorial hopeful Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor. But only a few will get a chance to ask him about Branch's new book: Clinton's appearances are limited to a closed event at LACC and a private fundraiser.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bill Clinton. Credit: Jin Lee / Bloomberg