Joan Walsh: Reading "The Clinton Tapes," thinking about Obama

Roundup: Talking About History

[Joan Walsh joined Salon in 1998 to become their first full-time news editor, and succeeded the irreplaceable David Talbot as editor in chief in February 2005.]

I need a break from the rhetorical outrage beat. I was going to write about the Newsmax columnist who all but advocated a military coup to bring down Obama, then I was pondering a post about Rep. Alan Grayson's claim that the GOP health reform plan amounts to if you get sick, "die quickly." But I'm tired of overheated rhetoric right now, (plus the indefatiguable Alex Koppelman got to both stories first!) so I took refuge in Taylor Branch's new book, "The Clinton Tapes." I had planned to review it, but it's almost 700 pages, and I have a day job. If I took the time to read it and then write about the whole thing, it would be weeks before I'd get it done -- and I think the book has insights that are supremely relevant to today.

So I thought I'd try to blog my review, over several days, and ask for your help, if you're reading the book. Every few days I'll write about what I am learning, and anyone who's reading, or curious, can participate in comments. (We could do the same thing with "Going Rogue" next month, but it would probably take us about an hour.)

I have to start by saying Taylor Branch's trilogy, "America in the King Years," is my favorite work of history. He brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alive for me. And to see my favorite civil rights historian -- so far, there are some up-and-comers that deserve a look, too! -- grappling with the president who, until Obama, thought and did more about civil rights than any president before him, well, it's a thrilling combination. The book opens with the pair believing they are fulfilling the movement they'd worked for as young men, convinced Clinton can do so much to advance King's goals, though we know that eventually politics got in the way. Still, it's important to remember that civil rights was the mission that animated Clinton's, and Branch's, passion for politics.

One hundred pages in, here's what's fascinating. First: Serendipitously, Branch started his private, taped talks with Clinton nine months into the Clinton presidency, in October, roughly where Obama is now, the better to focus you on the parallels and differences in their first year. I am not privy to the secrets of the Obama White House, but Branch brings the reader directly into the rooms where a red-eyed, exhausted Clinton sits talking late into the night about the challenges he faced in Mogadishu, Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq (remember how he bombed a weapons facility to retaliate for an attempt on President Bush's life, so W. wouldn't have to start a war!); the disappointment of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and the thrill of the short-lived Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, signed just eight months into his presidency; his failure to get a stimulus bill passed (thanks to Democratic turncoats and Republican opponents); the early work on healthcare reform (and that 1,342 page bill) and the controversial NAFTA...

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