Q&A with Taylor Branch

Gerard Matthews
Published 10/15/2009

Arkansas TimesWhen Taylor Branch’s new book, “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President,” was released, it set off an instant firestorm of beltway conversations and ruminations about the same old stuff — the affair with Monica, his relationship with Al Gore, the Whitewater investigations. The book is about all those things, but underneath is the somewhat simple story of two men, at the pinnacle of their chosen paths, talking.

Branch will speak about the book Thursday, Oct. 15, at the Clinton School of Public Service at 6 p.m.

You knew the president before you took on this project. When you met him, was there something that immediately drew you to him?

Well, we got sent to Texas together [in 1972 for the McGovern campaign] and had a bonding experience there. We got shellacked. And when you get shellacked together you do a lot of soul-searching together.

We weren’t thinking about who might be president because we had just lost by 30 points. We were losers, and I was just disgusted by politics. With all the great stakes in the world, with Vietnam and Watergate and the optimism of the Civil Rights era coming apart, it seemed to me that we had spent most of our time refereeing fights over who was going to sit where at campaign dinners. So, I went back into journalism and to some degree criticized him for sticking with politics. Years later, he reminded me of what he had said at the time, and I had dismissed it, but it was true. He said if you want to work on big problems in the world, like the Vietnam War, then you have to build up your patience and your ability to deal with squabbles over who sits where at a dinner.

How do you think being from the South shaped his worldview?

We both grew up in the segregated 1960s, and both of us slowly became obsessed with politics because of the race issues during the segregationist era. That had an enormous effect on him, and it certainly did on me. To us, politics had accomplished miracles because it had gotten rid of segregation and poverty in the South and the stigma in the South that we had grown up with.

I think his motive was really to rescue politics to the nobility that we felt it had earned in our lifetime. That’s why he was so frustrated that so much of the political talk during his presidency amounted to spitballs about politics being worthless and liberals and conservatives saying they didn’t have any common agenda. He thought politics had been reduced to a student body election where it was just a big argument about nothing of substance.

There’s a stereotype about him being a very calculating politician, but you’ve described a much more idealistic person.

Well, he is calculating, but what I’m saying is that I think he’s calculating with a purpose. A selfish person wouldn’t have invaded Haiti with eight percent public support or taken on the National Rifle Association. It did amaze me how people could say he didn’t believe in anything when he was so consistently getting beaten to death for doing things that he did believe in.

There are a lot of people who really dislike the Clintons — maybe more so in Arkansas than anywhere else — and most probably can’t even tell you why. Why do you think that is?

Clinton says in the book that if you think, on balance, that the ’60s were good for America, you’re going to feel one way about him, and if you feel that they were a terrible thing for America, then you’re going to feel the opposite. You’re going to resent him. Those simple attitudes will explain a lot of the voting patterns. So to some degree, “culture war” is an accurate phrase, in that we’re still divided by our basic attitudes about the 1960s, which boil down to race and war. And in that sense, wrestling history is really wrestling our attitudes about what politics can and cannot do. I chose that subtitle, in part, for that reason. But also, I was wrestling history because I wasn’t sure what my role was, whether I was his friend or advisor, or what.