Sunday, October 4, 2009

Taylor Branch

Just a day after enjoying the privilege of seeing Robert Caro, I went to a local Barnes and Noble to hear the other great biographer of our time talk about his quirky new book about the Clinton Presidency. This person is, of course, Taylor Branch and his richly deserved fame as a biographer derives from his monumental 3-volume history of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways, Branch's history is even more breathtaking than Caro's, because its sweep is so enormous and the number of secondary and tertiary characters so numerous. Branch is similar to Caro, though, in believing that he must tell long, deeply rooted historical narratives in order to capture the authentic Dr. King and the real story of how the Civil Rights Movement unfolded.

Branch was at the Upper West Side B&N surrounded by about 100 people when I arrived just before he began his remarks on Wednesday evening. This was nothing like the Caro talk, just an author and bookstore trying to sell some books, but this didn't prevent Branch from being an energetic and voluble storyteller who more than anything wanted us to know that it was Clinton's idea to have Branch compile these interviews throughout his Presidency in order to have an honest and relatively unfiltered account of what it was like to be President over the years Clinton served. What resulted was The Clinton Tapes, not a book that Branch particularly wanted to take responsibility for and that he eventually found difficult to compose, in part owing to the fact that it was impossible to write himself out of the story. Over 70 times during Clinton's presidency, Branch sat down with Clinton to get a first-hand sense of how we he was experiencing the Presidency. These interviews were conducted late at night at the White House, and when each was completed, Branch would drive himself home in his pickup truck back to Baltimore (?) and record his own remembrances of what it was like to interview Clinton. One of these Branch tapes actually opens the audio version of this book.

Who knows how The Clinton Tapes will be received, though it's unimaginable that it won't be a bestseller. What I do hope, though, is that this book will remind us how smart and wide-ranging Clinton's mind was, and what a tremendously bright and all-encompassing man we had in the White House for 8 years.

Taylor Branch, a great historian and a good friend, is himself intent on conveying this, as well as the fact that for all his flaws, Clinton's heart was almost always in the right place. As I listened to Branch talk about the Clinton book and how he had known Clinton for over 45 years, I also became convinced that Taylor Branch was a good and fair man who wanted to give us a revealing portrait of Clinton as President. I, for one, look forward to reading it.

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