Secret interviews add insight to Clinton presidency

By Susan Page, USA TODAY

USA TodayBALTIMORE — 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.


Reluctant to discuss the affair with Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment, Clinton once lamented that it occurred when he felt sorry for himself and that he “just cracked” under the pressure of personal and political setback.

He also relayed how Boris Yeltsin’s late-night drinking during a visit to Washington in 1995 nearly created an international incident. The Russian president was staying at Blair House, the government guest quarters. Late at night, Clinton told Branch, Secret Service agents found Yeltsin clad only in his underwear, standing alone on Pennsylvania Avenue and trying to hail a cab. He wanted a pizza, he told them, his words slurring.

The next night, Yeltsin eluded security forces again when he climbed down back stairs to the Blair House basement. A building guard took Yeltsin for a drunken intruder until Russian and U.S. agents arrived on the scene and rescued him.

Then there was Clinton’s take on a heated, two-hour discussion he had with then-Vice President Gore just after Gore had lost the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush.

The meeting started politely enough, Clinton recalled. Then Clinton, who felt underutilized during the 2000 campaign, told Gore he could have tilted the election to the Democratic side if he had been dispatched to stump in Arkansas or New Hampshire, both states in which Clinton was popular. Either state would have provided the electoral votes Gore needed to win.

Gore replied that Clinton’s scandalous shadow was a “drag” that had plagued Gore at every step of the campaign. The two “exploded” at each other in mutual recrimination.

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.”

‘I just cracked’

The president would be voluble on almost any topic, from the willingness of India and Pakistani leaders to threaten the death of millions in their standoff over nuclear arms, to his assessment of the Republican contenders vying to succeed him in 2000.

Texas governor George W. Bush “was unqualified to be president … but he had shrewd campaign instincts,” Clinton told Branch. Arizona Sen. John McCain “might make a good president, but he had no idea how to run.”

Clinton was less forthcoming when the topic turned to Lewinsky, whose affair with Clinton shook his marriage and his presidency. Branch says he felt “squeamish” about asking too much. Branch called the allegations of personal misconduct by public figures “familiar quicksand” from his years of studying the public and private life of Martin Luther King Jr.

When the topic did come up, Clinton usually offered the boilerplate responses he was giving in public. Once a special counsel was investigating first the Whitewater land deal and then the Lewinsky controversy, the two men skirted issues under investigation while the recorder was running to avoid having the tapes subject to subpoena and exposure.

But one night in August 1999, six months after he had survived the Senate impeachment trial, words “spilled out” from an emotional Clinton. He told Branch the Lewinsky affair began because “I cracked; I just cracked.”

Branch said in the interview he believed that Clinton “had once maybe strayed more often than that and made a big resolution not to do it in the White House because there was too much at stake.” Saying he was “speaking out of school,” Branch went on: “From his point of view, he succeeded 99%, but then felt sorry for himself and lapsed.”

The Democrats’ loss of Congress in the November 1994 elections — on top of the death of Clinton’s mother the previous January and the Whitewater investigation — made Clinton feel beleaguered, unappreciated and open to a liaison with Lewinsky, Clinton told Branch. The affair began during the government budget shutdown in November 1995 and resumed briefly a few months after Clinton’s re-election in 1996 — a victory that he felt should have been vindication but didn’t still his critics.

“He said he could have done worse,” Branch writes. “He could have blown something up.”

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.

There have been White House recordings of one sort or another since Franklin Roosevelt, but the secret systems that taped phone conversations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Oval Office meetings of Richard Nixon have been dismantled. A fear of investigations and subpoenas means presidents worry about being able to keep a diary private.

“The records preserved in presidential libraries are getting more voluminous but less personal,” Branch says. “There’s a mountain of paper, but it’s really hard to tell what happened.”

After the 1972 campaign, Clinton and Branch didn’t speak to one another for 20 years. Clinton was building a political career in Arkansas; Branch was researching and writing a history of the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968.

Clinton had read Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63— even the footnotes, many of them crediting records from presidential libraries. As president-elect, he asked Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to put Branch and his wife, Christy Macy, on the guest list for a glittering dinner party Graham hosted. There, Clinton pulled Branch aside for a brief conversation.

His question: How could he be sure his presidency had records that would give historians a similar window into what was going on behind the scenes?

Dictating a diary

Branch says the two conferred several times about it during the administration’s opening months. Clinton proposed Branch fill the role Arthur Schlesinger Jr. played in the Kennedy administration, a sort of court historian on the White House staff. Branch declined. Clinton tried dictating a diary but found it unwieldy; he said he needed to be interacting with someone.

In September 1993, Branch agreed to do oral history interviews with Clinton until the president could train someone on his staff for that role. No one else was ever trained, and their sessions continued until Clinton left office in 2001.

The president was determined to keep them secret to avoid what he saw as inevitable demands for disclosure.

“I was constantly wrestling with, ‘What is my job?’ ” Branch says. “Basically, my first goal was to say, ‘This is about history. … I want to get as much raw material on the record as possible.’ But it was never that simple.”

Branch was there as a historian but he also was a friend, and Clinton at times would seek his advice. From 1998 to 1999, Branch’s wife worked at the White House as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. As Bill Clinton finished his memoirs, he surprised Branch with a $50,000 “bonus” for his help in laying the groundwork for them.

Publication of Branch’s book has underscored the conflicting agendas of friend and historian.

Clinton on several occasions had encouraged Branch to write a book about their sessions, albeit at some undesignated point in the future. The author used the advance he received from the publishing house Simon & Schuster to have his own tapes transcribed; he had stored them in a safe deposit box at a bank.

Those tapes will be available to researchers next year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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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