Bill Clinton is engaged in a major rehabilitation project with historian and personal friend Taylor Branch. Time magazine is eager to help: eager enough to boast that Bill Clinton was a terrific father, and cared more about his daughter Chelsea than his job in the White House. Time’s Nancy Gibbs touted "The Other Bill Clinton," manuevering around the massive paternal embarrassment of his adultery and sexual harassment scandals:
When Rush Limbaugh called her "the White House dog," T-shirts appeared saying LEAVE CHELSEA ALONE. Which, remarkably, most people did.
One person who did not leave Chelsea alone was her father. In acclaimed historian Taylor Branch's new book The Clinton Tapes — woven from Branch's recorded conversations with the President from 1993 to 2001 — the portrait of the relationship between Bill Clinton, a man who never knew his own father, and his daughter reveals a side we rarely saw on the public stage. Bill Clinton, it turns out, raised a daughter and ran the free world, sometimes in that order.
If you don't believe it, consider the fight Branch describes between Clinton and Al Gore in November 1995. Gore told Clinton the President needed to visit Japan to heal a rift caused when Clinton failed to attend an APEC economic summit. Looking over Clinton's calendar, Gore noticed three light days in January. No, Clinton said, he needed to be home for Chelsea, who'd be taking her junior-year midterms. Gore was dumbstruck. "Al," Clinton said, "I am not going to Japan and leave Chelsea by herself to take these exams." A new rift opened — between Clinton and Gore. Branch describes Clinton as wrestling with the problem "like a medieval scholastic. It was a choice between public duty on a vast scale, and the most personal devotion." The Tokyo trip was set for April.
Chelsea wanders into and out of Branch's account of the Clinton presidency, singing show tunes, soliciting help with math homework or with an essay weighing Dr. Frankenstein's best and worst qualities. Bill Clinton's sensitivity to the challenges his daughter faced belies his image as an unabashed narcissist. The President would be late for anything except her ballet recitals; he would flaunt any asset for political advantage except her.
There is plenty in Branch's account to remind people why he drove them crazy. But it is bracing and confounding to see another side, the faults transcended, the ego contained. Clinton had great advantages as a parent, but unique challenges as well, and he rose to them in a way people sensed but rarely saw; a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in 1997 found that 81% of respondents thought he had been a good father, even though that was the role he played most privately. For her sake, he hid what was best in himself. That's worth remembering the next time we imagine we ever really know the people we judge.
It’s no mistake that Gibbs cherry-picked a poll from 1997, the year before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Gibbs is most pathetic in trotting all the old Clinton-defending line that we don't "ever really know the people we judge." Would a Time writer be caught dead using that line on behalf of a George W. Bush or Dick Cheney?