If you, too, are alternately fascinated and disgusted by former President Clinton, then you will enjoy this apt essay (from the London Review of Books) on Taylor Branch’s new sort-of-oral history, The Clinton Tapes. The Man from Hope comes across as absurdly intelligent, maddeningly capricious, gloriously self-centered, and, ultimately, not that bad a guy (especially in contrast with the ghouls who replaced him and his people in 2001). Are you at all surprised by that?
It’s true we aren’t provided with verbatim transcripts – Clinton still has those for release one day to his presidential library in Arkansas – but instead a curious, twice-removed version of the conversations, with Branch having to reconstruct what was said from the notes he made at the time. Yet the account he provides is sufficiently artless – full of digressions, long-windedness, false starts and nagging obsessions – to have the ring of authenticity . . .
Through all this, a clear picture of Clinton’s passions and priorities emerges. The things he loves are politics, hard data and his family, in roughly that order. The thing he hates is the media, above all newspapers, on which he blames almost all his troubles. His love of politics is not a love of the sort of low-level politicking in which [former staffer George] Stephanopoulos and his fellow staffers indulge. Rather, he has an unquenchable fondness for politicians themselves, with all their foibles and all their weaknesses – it is, in other words, a kind of self-love.
If Lincoln and (maybe) Obama are our poet-presidents, and if Jefferson was the smartest man ever to hold the office, then Clinton’s weird mix of empathy, indiscretion, and brains marks him as a kind of sub-mutation of both categories. Read on, read on.