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Sep 30, 2009 4:33 am

Memory & Oral History

Our former colleague, Michael Tinkler, The Cranky Professor, is critical of Cliopatria for having cited published reviews of Taylor Branch's new book, based on his interviews with former President Clinton. Michael seems to think that I ought to have criticized the fact that Branch conducted the interviews with Clinton privately and that, for the time being, at least, access to them is denied all other historians.

The criticism seems strange to me because, in"Murder and Biblical Memory: The Legend of Vernon Johns,"* I published a fuller critique of Branch's work as a historian than any other historian.** One of its major points focused on his uncritical use of oral history. The scandal of Branch's new book on Clinton isn't that Branch accepted a National Humanities Medal from Clinton even as the interviews were being conducted. The scandal isn't even, as Tinkler seems to think, that the interviews were conducted privately or that other historians are denied access to them. Frustrating as it may be, that is very commonly the case in contemporary history. The scandal of Branch's new book is that even he had no access to the tapes that he and Bill Clinton had created. All Branch had were his notes and recorded memories of the interviews that he created after leaving the interviews with Clinton.

*Joyce Appleby, ed., The Best American History Essays, 2006 (NY: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006): 201-229.
**My colleague on the Martin Luther King Papers Project, Clayborne Carson, will publish a tepid critique of Branch's civil rights trilogy in the coming issue of the American Historical Review.

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Ralph E. Luker - 9/30/2009

I suppose, if you assume that they will, at some point, become available to researchers.

William Harshaw - 9/30/2009

Isn't it better that the tapes exist, even under Clinton's control, than that they don't?