Secret White House tapes provide new Clinton book

Fri Oct 16, 2009 9:55am EDT
By Matthew Bigg

ReutersATLANTA (Reuters Life!) – During his presidency, Bill Clinton met prize-winning historian Taylor Branch 79 times in the White House to record a secret diary of his time in office.

The result is “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President“, a new book that presents a fresh view of key events such as Clinton’s handling of the economy and deficit, the rise of al Qaeda and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Since the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon presidents have been wary about making tapes in the White House.

But Branch and Clinton had worked together in their twenties and Clinton proposed the tapes as a historical record of his presidency. In the event, Clinton kept the tapes and Branch’s book is based on the contemporaneous notes he took.

Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for “Parting the Waters: America in the King years 1954-63“, spoke to Reuters about Clinton project and his book.

Q: What was your overriding impression of Clinton?

A: “I was amazed that he was so constantly engaged with issues from all over the world in spite of distractions of every kind …. I expected more fussing about what it was like to be a president. He was always worrying about what he was going to do next.”

Q: What view did you gain of the presidency?

A: “It was a vast complex pressure machine that all came down on the president with tremendous loads of pressure. You couldn’t really control your schedule. I had this image that presidents only deal with things as you were prepared to deal with them. With him there were constant pressures and opportunities from every corner.”

Q: How did Clinton make decisions?

A: “It was the first time I had ever experienced what you hear other presidents doing. He loved hearing arguments (from advisors). Lots of times he would take apart and put together his rationale and explain why he went one way or another. This was true for sending cruise missiles after bin Laden, why he would overrule his defense chiefs …. He confirmed the historians view that the really hard decisions that go up to presidents have multiple facets.”

Q: What did you see of the pressures on Clinton?

A: “I was stunned by how tired he would be at times. There are several passages where his eyes rolled up under his eyelids while he was talking. He would snap back in focus …. Several times during the impeachment he actually did contortions (as he spoke). He would pull his knee up next to his ear. He seemed to get some relief from stress points …. There was a tremendous physical strain that was quite evident.”

Q: What did he say about the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the impeachment process?

A: “He was talking about it more from the standpoint of regret and defending his presidency in the extreme. He was over his strain with (First Lady) Hillary because they were fighting impeachment together.

“He said that the problem of Monica Lewinsky was a terrible failure that grew out of self-pity.”

Q: What does Clinton think of the book?

A: “He fretted that it was so personal that some of the personal stuff would be distorted. He had anticipated that it would just be about policy.”

Q: Is this book history?

A: “I don’t claim to be objective. I don’t call this book a historical book like my books on (civil rights leader Martin Luther) King. In the Clinton book I am trying to present more of a primary record.”