Taylor Branch's secret interviews add insight to Clinton presidency

Historians in the News

BALTIMORE — The call from the White House usually would come in late afternoon. President Clinton had a few hours open in the evening. Could he come over?

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian, would pick up a notepad of questions and two microcassette recorders and drive his truck down Interstate 95 to Washington. Parking on the South Lawn, he would head to the White House family quarters for interviews so secret Clinton stored the tapes of them in his sock drawer.

What followed sometimes seemed like one of the bull sessions the two had two decades earlier when they shared an apartment in Austin, running George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign in Texas.

In these interviews and a new book that has followed, Branch says he tried to capture Clinton's unvarnished perspective on the events swirling around his presidency, from the consequential to the occasionally comic...

... Clinton may be having some second thoughts about the 79 oral history interviews he gave to Branch during his presidency, their contents not yet released. The transcripts are in binders that fill a long shelf in the office he converted from a garage behind his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

The former president has been on the phone with Branch for hours since he got page proofs of Branch's new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (Simon & Schuster), running"hot and cold" about the account based on Branch's recollections of their conversations.

"I think it's fair to say he's nervous," Branch, 62, said last week at his Victorian house here. Clinton didn't respond to several requests for comment.

The portrait that emerges from the 707-page tome is a president who reveled in policy and delighted in politics but"always thought he was trapped in the personal issues," Branch says. The description of Clinton's goals and thinking is more candid and more complex than in Clinton's 2004 memoir, My Life.

Still, Branch's book is more of a one-man show than a three-dimensional perspective: The world of the moment as seen through the president's eyes.

Branch waited until his civil-rights trilogy was done and Clinton's memoirs were published before turning to this book. Clinton didn't know Branch was making his own set of contemporaneous tapes, Branch says,"but I don't think he'd be surprised" that a historian would do so.

As he drove back to Baltimore after each interview, Branch would put a fresh tape in his recorder and recap what the president had just said. If he didn't finish during the hour-long drive, he would sit in his tree-lined driveway in the pre-dawn quiet, stifling yawns and talking into the recorder until he was done.

Declining to detail Clinton's concerns, he says:"The only thing I can say is that I didn't change anything that he asked me to change." ...

Behind the headlines

Sitting with Branch on the second floor of the White House, Clinton would rail against the news media and his Republican opposition for what he saw as pursuing the personal and the inconsequential rather than the substantive and important. At times he would admit that his own actions played a part in all that, especially in the Lewinsky affair, stoking the controversies that risked overshadowing everything else.

Branch, who kept a daily account of Clinton's schedule from news accounts, would set up two small recorders and pose questions he had written on a notepad, probing for details and insights beyond what was on the public record.

They often would meet in the Treaty Room but sometimes sat in the small family kitchen or on the Truman Balcony. In July 2000, during the Middle East peace negotiations, Branch was summoned for a session at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Once done, Branch would rewind the tapes, label them and give them to Clinton. After several years, he learned the president was tucking them behind his socks in a chest of drawers, where they remained until he moved out of the White House.

Branch has never heard the tapes. Besides the president's scheduler, almost no one on the West Wing staff knew the interviews were taking place.

"I walked in on the two of them talking one night late in the residence and they both acted a little funny," remembers then-White House press secretary Joe Lockhart."A year later in the Chappaqua house, after he'd left the White House, I saw a box of tapes sitting out and asked the president what they were, and he told me they were the Taylor conversations."

There was a roller coaster quality to some of the evenings, Branch recalls. Clinton, often exhausted, was a study in multi-tasking. One interview in 1995 was interrupted by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher calling about air strikes in Bosnia; Clinton had been filling in a crossword puzzle and then began to deal a game of solitaire while continuing both conversations.

On the night of the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, the topics between Clinton and Branch included not only that catastrophe but also then-Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's appeal to win delivery of more F-16 fighter jets and the legislative strategy of the new GOP House speaker, Newt Gingrich.

Then Chelsea, the Clintons' daughter, hovered at the door. She was writing a paper for her sophomore English class to describe the best and worst qualities of Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's famous novel, but she couldn't make her points fit on a single page, as assigned.

"He's reading it, and then he asked me to read it and what did I think? And where could it be shortened?" Branch recalls."I've got the tapes going and I'm wondering, 'Am I going to be able to get back to the stuff I'm supposed to be doing? And will historians of the future think I'm an idiot for getting sidetracked off of these things with the president of the United States to be critiquing this homework assignment on … Dr. Frankenstein?'"

From the beginning, the interviews were designed to provide Clinton's perspective on his presidency as it was happening...

... The former president had planned to use the interviews he had given when he wrote his book, but there is little sign he did. As he neared the deadline to submit his manuscript in 2004, he invited Branch to Chappaqua to read the first 700 pages. Branch was stunned to find that with only a month or two to go until his deadline, Clinton was just beginning to write about his time in the White House.

In one of their few arguments, Branch urged him to delay publication or split the memoir into two volumes — one now, a second later. Clinton refused. In the end, My Life"skims the surface" of his presidency like a hovercraft, Branch says.

For historians wanting to plunge into the Clinton presidency, the unprecedented interviews will be invaluable, says Russell Riley, head of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. He calls their existence"a major historical event," though Clinton hasn't said when and under what conditions they might be available to scholars.

"There is a poverty of original-source accounts of what truly is happening in the White House (because) people are afraid to put things down on paper," Riley says. The recordings"hold a great deal of promise for us in getting a better picture of at least what President Clinton's mentality and understanding were at critical moments of his presidency."

He likens it to the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes from black-and-white Kansas to full-color Oz:"The richness of the portraiture of what you're seeing around you and the way it engages your senses about history are profoundly enhanced."

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Donald Wolberg - 9/23/2009

Reading and rereading this almost fascinating statement, I wonder if there really is "contnet" beyond ramblings. Of course capturing immediate images is a substantive contribution on its own, but somewhere the superficial must end and the significant begin. One also must combat impressions that this could well be Mr. Clinto doing what he did best most of the time, manipulate for his own and usually selfish ends, creating a cushion of distraction from the frequently tacky side of his personality.

It is a shame we do not have such electrionic "visitation rights" for Mr. Truman as an example, or recordings of Mr. Lincoln. One senses that there would be fewer doubts of the genuine with them.