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Tell-All Books Recall Bush, Clinton Years

Two more tell-all books about former presidents are sure to take Washington by storm this week — promising intimate portraits of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Matt Latimer’s “Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor— is something of a Washington version of “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,— ex-Vanity Fair reporter Toby Young’s memoir of misadventure in New York publishing. Latimer, a former speechwriter to Donald Rumsfeld and Bush, follows the well-worn path of juicy administration tell-alls in the mode of insiders like former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan — but with the added twist of also being an engaging and funny coming-of-age tale.

Latimer breezes through much of his early life in Flint, Mich., before jumping to the start of his Washington career as a lowly Senate staffer on Capitol Hill. Over the course of his narrative, he proceeds to throw almost all of his former bosses, colleagues and subordinates under the bus — with the notable exceptions of Rumsfeld and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

According to Latimer, former Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) was an ungracious and phony hack. Ex-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) was a genial idiot with a questionable grasp on basic facts — once suggesting to a group of constituents that Puerto Rican nationalists had assassinated former President Dwight Eisenhower. Rumsfeld may not have rankled Latimer, but the author clearly despised working at what he thought was a bloated and incompetent Department of Defense.

Latimer arrived in the West Wing during the waning days of the Bush administration, genuinely thrilled by the opportunity to be a presidential wordsmith. But his innocent naiveté turned into hardened cynicism and — as before — few of his former colleagues escape his harsh, critical eye. Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten was too cold-blooded, while incompetent Chief Speechwriter Mark Thiessen ran the department into the ground. Press Secretary Dana Perino was so deluded by loyalty and sensitive of criticism of Bush that she couldn’t bear to watch the 2008 Democratic convention on television, saying it would be too “mean— to Bush.

He dedicates almost an entire chapter to clobbering Karl Rove, writing, “Karl was not the hero of the Bush White House, the brilliant behind-the-scenes strategist. He was what all the liberals said he was: the villain.— Latimer adds, “The truth is that after Karl was promoted to run domestic policy in the second term, not a single major bill proposed by the White House passed through a Republican Congress.—

The juiciest bits, of course, involve Bush, including his professed dislike for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2008 election. The most telling moment is Latimer’s revelation that Bush had essentially no grasp whatsoever on the details of what he authorized Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to do in response to the financial meltdown. “The White House seemed to have ceded all of its authority on economic matters to the secretive secretary of the treasury,— Latimer writes.

Still, the best parts of Latimer’s book are not the “he said, she said— political gossip, but the more outlandish stories. He recalls Kyl’s chief of staff wandering back into the anthrax-ridden Hart Senate Office Building after evacuation just to water the office plants. He dismayingly retells how Bush administration staffers objected to giving author J.K. Rowling a presidential medal “because the Harry Potter books encouraged witchcraft.— And he relates a fierce debate among the staff over whether the president should pardon a pig rather than a turkey at Thanksgiving. It’s these moments that make Latimer’s book funny and poignant — and show the more irreverent side of the strait-laced Washington establishment.

Compared to Latimer, historian Taylor Branch’s “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President— is a model of solemnity and academic fastidiousness. Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a trilogy on the civil rights movement, recorded 79 intimate conversations with President Bill Clinton between 1993 and 2001 — and the results are a portrait of a presidency from beginning to end.

Branch and Clinton were estranged friends who worked together on Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) losing 1972 presidential campaign. Twenty years later, Clinton asked Branch to be the official White House historian. Branch balked at the level of commitment such an official position would entail, and eventually both men compromised on a more informal, conversational arrangement to record an oral history for posterity.

From the start, Branch’s conception of “The Clinton Tapes— as a work for posterity is not ideal. He structures his book chronologically, basing each chapter on a fusion of several recording sessions. However, his renewed, deepening personal relationship with Clinton seems to have a profound effect on the tone of the narrative. Branch ends up essentially paraphrasing Clinton at length, with little critical examination or discussion of the truthfulness of Clinton’s interpretations. Branch does admit his struggle with trying to maintain objectivity, but the finished product does not reflect the work of an unbiased historian or journalist, but rather preserves the conversational tone of a dialogue between two old friends.

At the same time, there are fascinating conversations on Clinton’s brilliant, globe-trotting shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Branch paints a detailed portrait of Clinton’s strained relationship with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin as both countries transitioned out of Cold War mode. He also documents some of the administration infighting that occurred behind closed doors — Clinton’s distaste for then-Attorney General Janet Reno and his emotional conversation with Al Gore after the 2000 election, for example.

Further, as a trusted insider and confidant, Branch sees the physical and emotional toll that the stress of the presidency takes on Clinton. Clinton’s barely contained rage against what he perceived as a hostile media is a recurring theme, as is his physical exhaustion and recurring illness. The weight of the presidency is often palpable in Branch’s conversations with Clinton, as the president wrestles with military strategy, diplomacy and domestic policy.

In short, what Branch’s book lacks in objectivity, it more than makes up for in the candor of Clinton’s tone, the depth of the material and the detailed account of Clinton’s inner thoughts and struggles over the course of his administration. The only real disappointment is that Clinton, like in his 2004 autobiography “My Life,— is not exceptionally forthcoming about scandals such as Paula Jones, Whitewater or Monica Lewinsky. As an interviewer, Branch gingerly tiptoes around these crucial issues, implying that he fears the prosecutor investigating the Clintons would subpoena their tapes.

Latimer and Branch offer distinctive takes on the life and times of two very different presidencies. Latimer’s humor and bitter dismay are particularly suitable for the chaotic, madcap presidency that he describes, while Branch paints his portrait of Clinton in the plaintive, sober tones of a professional historian. Both approaches have their respective flaws and successes — but, ultimately, so do the presidents that they portray.

As a result, Latimer and Branch succeed remarkably in humanizing the presidents by showing their quirks, their faults and their struggles with tremendous responsibility.

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