Taylor Branch’s account of his secret conversations with the US president raises fascinating questions about how history is made, writes Gaby Wood
Sunday 11 October 2009
The Observer review by Gaby Wood
On 14 October 1993, nine months into Bill Clinton’s presidency, roughly where we are now in Obama’s, historian Taylor Branch arrived at the White House and set two tape recorders on a desk that had once belonged to Ulysses S Grant. It was to be the first of 79 secret recordings he would make with the president over the next eight years.
Branch and Clinton had met in 1969 at a reunion of anti-Vietnam activists at Martha’s Vineyard. Three years later, they were brought together to co-ordinate George McGovern’s presidential campaign against Nixon in Texas, where they – and Hillary Clinton – shared an apartment. (In his memoir, Clinton describes Branch as the “tightfisted” one who controlled the campaign budget, while he himself found it difficult to say no to people.)
They were both white Southerners who’d grown up in the civil rights era. Disappointment over McGovern’s defeat led Branch to reject elective politics and become a journalist, seeking, as he writes in The Clinton Tapes, “greater integrity and potential in the written word”. Eventually, he would write a magnificent trilogy of books about the US in the era of Martin Luther King and become one of the country’s most eminent historians. Clinton went the other way, pressing further into what they had begun and arguing that “you must be strong enough to work through human nature, not around it”. Many years later, Clinton told Branch he sometimes wished he’d followed his path instead.
Fast forward 20 years: Clinton has been elected president but not taken office. Branch is invited to a dinner at the home of Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, where Clinton, whom he hasn’t seen since their Texas days, takes him aside. He tells Branch he has looked at the footnotes to his book on King and noted that much of the material came from presidential libraries. Clinton asks Branch for two things: some thoughts on “generational change” for his inauguration speech and advice about how to maintain an adequate record of his presidency for future historians.
Branch was astonished that Clinton should be raising such “farsighted questions” about how “politics and history shape each other”. But he felt compromised by Clinton’s offer to make him an in-house historian (years later, Clinton asked Branch to ghost-write his memoirs and Branch, who had ghost-written two already, said no). White House lawyers blenched at the idea of official note-takers. What if the documents or tapes were stolen or subpoenaed?
Branch finally offered to help Clinton with what he calls a “prompted diary”, driving from Baltimore at all hours to encourage him to talk; the president would hide the tapes in a sock drawer for the rest of his time in office. He would then use them for his memoir, before depositing them in his presidential library. On his way home, Branch spoke into a tape recorder, documenting each meeting in detail for his own purposes. These next-to-immediate recollections form the basis of The Clinton Tapes. To this day, Branch has not had access to the recordings or transcripts of their conversations.
This secret, dangerous and unprecedented historiographical project is especially intriguing in relation to Clinton’s presidency. Clinton had a knack for radiating intimacy. Joe Klein, who was inspired by Clinton to write the bestselling roman a clef Primary Colors, later suggested that “there was a physical, almost carnal quality to his public appearances”. His vices and his virtues were two sides of the same coin and a look at such a man can teach us much about the power of appetites in politics.
Branch got all this in close-up: the president sneaking nachos and salsa out of the kitchen after a jog; the president with conjunctivitis; the president playing cards, finishing the crossword, falling asleep mid-sentence. He sees Chelsea fretting over homework and Hillary in a face mask. He is like a hushed-up member of the family. What can such a slanted view offer?
Branch describes himself here as a “participant in a memoir”, someone who wishes to portray the president “candidly in texture”. His acknowledgments offer extensive notes on where his own research will be housed, reinforcing its status as raw material for future historians. The ground they cover – Bosnia, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Haiti, the Middle East, the budget, character sketches of individual politicians – is interesting, but not half as interesting as the proposition the book itself constitutes. Is history what you do or what you record? If there’s no record, how will future generations know what you did and, if you take time out to record it, could you be making it instead?
Nowhere are these questions more acutely raised than in the instances where Branch is what might be described as a participant observer. For instance, he is asked by Life magazine to cover the inauguration, which he is helping to script. The conversations that involve him are off the record, to him. While taping, Clinton asks for his advice: should he fire the head of the CIA? Should he replace his surgeon-general? Branch says yes.
Clinton asks him to call urgently from a roadside payphone because he needs to know how history would regard it if he settled the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Branch acts as a go-between for Clinton and Aristide, the exiled president of Haiti, a role that prompts Clinton to remark that Branch should stick to writing. A chapter about Monica Lewinsky is about her in title only: they halted their recordings for months while Ken Starr ransacked the White House for clues; when they resumed Clinton didn’t want to talk about it. Should Branch, as an objective recorder of facts, have pressed him? And as a friend (Branch wonders), should he have offered to listen more?
When Clinton’s memoir was published, Branch accepted a cheque for $50,000. Clinton knew Branch wanted to write his own book about their meetings and said he hoped he would. But you only get a true sense of why Branch might have been compelled to offer his account when he writes about the time he went to visit the ex-president and spent the night reading a manuscript of his memoir. It was 700 pages long and ended in 1992, during the election campaign.
Where’s the rest? Branch asked. Clinton had left himself just three months to cover everything they had discussed during the eight years of his presidency. Branch looked over at the shelf of bound transcripts of their 79 interviews and thought: “There was lost opportunity in those tapes, but whose loss would it be?”