Clinton confidential

With a historian’s honesty, Taylor Branch relates eight years of conversations with his friend in the White House

By Michael Sragow
September 27, 2009

Baltimore SunThey met as token Southerners at a conclave of anti-war activists at Martha’s Vineyard in 1969, and connected in Austin in 1972 as co-runners of the Texas campaign for the George McGovern-Sargent Shriver ticket. They were white men with formal educations from top schools and real educations forged in the racial turmoil and righteous protest that engulfed the Deep South throughout their childhood and adolescence. But they hadn’t spoken for 20 years.

So when Taylor Branch, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil-rights history “Parting the Waters,” spent 1992’s election night in Little Rock, Ark., and heard his old political pal Bill Clinton issue “a clarion call for our country to face the challenges of the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the next century,” he never expected so much as a phone call.

Then he read in his local newspaper, The Sun, that Clinton was “just sick about” not seeing Branch in Little Rock. A month later, the historian found himself at the president-elect’s table at one of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s fabled dinner parties. Catching sight of Branch on the lawn of Graham’s Georgetown estate, Clinton created a conversation space at one end of a crowded dinner tent. With all his youthful ebullience intact, Clinton exulted: “Can you believe all this?”

At home in Baltimore last week, Branch admits that he’d had doubts about whether Clinton was “the guy I had known, because I breathe the same air that everyone else breathes, and I kind of assumed that, after 20 years of Arkansas politics, he was processed like everybody else. I even told him once that I had trouble with the ‘Forgotten Middle Class’ slogan that he ran on because it sounded like Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority.’ ” But “within 10 seconds of talking with him,” Branch “knew this was the guy I had known 20 years ago when we were both idealistic young anti-war types. … Even though he was surrounded by the Secret Service, yes, that same personal connection was there.”

Clinton had read “Parting the Waters” straight through the footnotes, which reference presidential libraries. As Branch puts it in his new book, “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President” (due out Tuesday), Clinton immediately said he hoped to sound the author out about whether historians “fifty years from now would find enough good raw material in his own library to recapture the inner dynamics of his presidency.”

Expanding on that subject in a wide-ranging conversation, Branch says that Clinton, seemingly “out of the blue,” had hit on one of his central concerns: that the researching and writing of history have grown limited and superficial. Branch’s combination of voracity and veracity – and Clinton’s eagerness to talk about the presidency – triggered the confidential enterprise at the center of this fascinating book.

Compelling narrative

Between 1993 and 2001, Branch served as Clinton’s unofficial oral historian. The president retained the original 79 tapes of the dialogues Branch conducted with him, often late at night, in the White House. The writer taped recollections of each session on the road back to Baltimore. (This feat sometimes required extra hours on his porch.) Branch’s transcripts of his own dictation became the basis of “The Clinton Tapes.”

The only direct quotes are “memorable phrases,” but with his vast oral-history experience and his intense feeling for personalities and events, Branch creates a compelling personal and political narrative. His bracing depiction of a wildly talented chief executive will upend conventional wisdom and, with any luck, puncture the confidence of political know-it-alls and know-nothings alike.

Not long after Clinton’s inauguration, commentators and observers from the left as well as the right began to pillory him as a man without fiber. As Branch recounts in “The Clinton Tapes,” way back in 1993, William Greider of Rolling Stone asked Clinton whether there was “one principle you won’t compromise? One cause you will uphold? One belief you would die for?” By the time “The West Wing” premiered in 1999, in Clinton’s second term, it was perceived as a Clinton presidency corrected for disillusioned Democrats, with a disciplined philosopher king at the center and hordes of witty do-gooders swirling around him in a high-minded circus.

The amazing thing about “The Clinton Tapes” is that it reveals Clinton’s core idealism, as well as an intellectual and emotional complexity that escaped most of the journalists covering him and went far beyond the literate, seductive pop fantasy of “The West Wing.” In this account, Clinton’s all-out engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – “he knows every bus stop on the West Bank,” Branch quips – for once takes precedence over the empty sex and real-estate scandals and salacious theorizing that dominated press coverage of his presidency long before Monica Lewinsky. And Clinton becomes his own best defender of his domestic policies, including his routing of the national debt.

As Branch writes, “He told Greider he had done things already that no other president would do. He had raised taxes on the rich and lowered them for the working poor. He had introduced the AmeriCorps national service program, which Rolling Stone campaigned for, and established it in law. He was taking on the gun lobby and the tobacco industry. … He was fighting for national health coverage, and more, but [Clinton said] liberals paid very little attention to any of these things because they were bitchy and cynical about politics. They resented Clinton for respecting the votes of conservatives or the opinions of moderates.”

Branch’s resolute honesty about his diverse roles within the Clinton saga imbues the book with a prismatic perspective. He ended up serving as speech-writing consultant, reluctant political counselor and, astonishingly, international go-between. He shuttled messages to and from Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, at one point, entered the impoverished country without a passport. (His only official ID was his driver’s license.)

Capturing the details

The writer carved out a reputation for openness and rigor from the start of his trilogy, “America in the King Years,” a masterpiece of narrative truth-seeking. (He followed “Parting the Waters” with “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge.”) The culture of his native Atlanta had taught him to believe that the Civil War “had nothing to do with slavery,” that “the slaves were better off” on the plantations, and that “the Ku Klux Klan saved the South.” This trilogy was his chance to set the record straight.

He knew “the only thing that could withstand that old mythology would be a history that was vibrant and human enough to resist drying out and being turned into another myth itself. History is perishable. For ‘King,’ I followed everything because I thought it was a fleeting opportunity to capture a hidden world before it receded. It meant talking to all these people before they died and transcribing these tapes and trying to knit together how they worked.”

Branch’s latest book is true to his magisterial iconoclasm and sharpshooter’s eye for detail. But for Branch, “The Clinton Tapes” is “totally different from ‘King.’ It’s first person, and it’s like a two-person play as a matter of craft, which is unlike anything I ever did before. It’s also grossly, grotesquely unbalanced, because one of the characters is me – and I am awkward about writing about myself – and the other character is the president.”

He says he doubts there’s as much screen potential in “The Clinton Tapes” as there is in his King trilogy. Still, you could imagine a dramatist and screenwriter like Peter Morgan, of “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen,” having a field day with the complicated relationship of a many-sided president and an equally brilliant writer who never can be sure of the exact part he’s meant to play at any given moment.

Picture of a friendship

The book vividly communicates these two friends’ rapport, rooted in their Southern identities. Clinton posed another question to Branch that first night at Kay Graham’s. Acknowledging Al Gore, he asked, “Can you write me what you think it means that two Southerners … were elected on a ticket, president and vice president, so soon after the civil rights era?”

The civil rights movement’s cathartic enlargement of democracy ripples through “The Clinton Tapes.” Branch says, “Our optimism about politics comes out of that deeply embedded experience. …We think it proves that politics could be an uplifting thing.” They saw how politics directly “helped the South, including the white South, liberating it economically and in many other ways.” Many liberals think government moved too slowly on civil rights; many conservatives think it went too far. Influential voices on both sides take the King and Vietnam-protest era as proof that politics is bad. But to Branch and Clinton, “It proved just the opposite: It proved [politics] can work miracles.”

Branch bewails “the big disconnect between [Clinton’s] view of politics and our political culture.” He considers it “a danger sign” for our society – a warning that “our politics have atrophied.” Branch gave “The Clinton Tapes” a subtitle – “Wrestling History with the President” – because “a lot of our politics is about wrestling history. What does it mean? Can government really do anything? Is politics really a corrupt profession?”

Branch hoped to craft a you-are-there entertainment, “but underneath that were some of the same serious historical concerns” as “America in the King Years.” He conclusively demonstrates “the constructive side” of the Clinton presidency behind “the craziness” of Whitewater.

“I think he has some LBJ qualities,” says Branch. “There’s something Southern in Clinton’s gifted physical language. I was very struck by his hands – his hands are very big, very expressive. Johnson did not get enough credit for his policy-wonk, cerebral side; Clinton gets a lot. But what they have in common was that they knew you had to blend some analysis of where you wanted to go with some reading of character. You might not be able to sell Old So-and-So on your analysis, but if you know that his wife is this, that or the other, or his weak spot is that, or you know he can be buttered up on some side of his life story, you know you may be able to bring him around on an issue.”

At times, Branch says, he was “awed by the Clinton experience. … He wanted to deal with the politics, win, lose or draw, because he loved it. He loved being with the people who hated him! But he was frustrated because he was always being diverted into this other stuff.”

Still, Branch doesn’t lose sight of Clinton’s responsibility for that “other stuff.”

In one of their last interviews, the president finally says “I think I just cracked” to summarize his behavior during L’affaire Lewinsky. Branch writes that after suffering through Clinton’s explanatory litany of woes (his mother’s death, Vince Foster’s suicide, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin), “I said, the great sadness for me was that he had come so close to proving all the scandals baseless. Now Lewinsky alone vindicated cynicism.”

But few books have greater potential to help rescue our politics from cynicism than “The Clinton Tapes.”

‘Wrestling History’: More on Clinton

Taylor Branch hopes he’s written a book in which, for once, the personal enhances the political, and vice versa. “The Clinton Tapes” contains a full share of striking revelations about personalities and political conflicts:

  • Although Branch says Clinton never forgot Boris Yeltsin’s heroism for stopping a coup against Gorbachev by delivering a stirring speech from the turret of a tank, the Russian president’s alcoholism proved a constant source of consternation. During his two-day trip to Washington in September 1994, “only luck had prevented scandal or worse on both nights of this visit. Clinton had received notice of a major predawn security alarm when Secret Service agents discovered Yeltsin alone on Pennsylvania Avenue, dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi. … He did not want to go back into Blair House, where he was staying. He wanted a taxi to go out for pizza. I asked the president what became of the stand-off. ‘Well,’ the president said, shrugging, ‘he got his pizza.’ “
  • Clinton says, “I’ve always loved [Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski. You want to be in a foxhole with her.” He took her advice on appointing Madeleine Albright to Secretary of State. Mikulski “believed Albright would break barriers in communications as well as gender. Her manner and words resonated with Mikulski’s constituents on the docks of Baltimore.” And Mikulski was Clinton’s “favorite wild-card candidate” to fill out Gore’s ticket in 2000. Branch writes, “He conceded that my home state senator might produce shock waves of disbelief at first. Mikulski was well under five feet tall, with a frumpy figure and a beer-hall voice. Still, Clinton predicted that she could rise to folk-hero status …” According to Branch, Clinton treasures the story of “how Mikulski once spiked sinister rumors that she was a lesbian.” Addressing “assembled big shots and deal makers, who had grown up with and around her, she told them she heard their whispers. She knew what they were thinking. Look, she said, here is what’s real. I am your maiden aunt. Every family has one of me. I’m the one who takes care of the kids when you go on vacation. You know who I am, and if it bothers you all I can say is this: Where were you when I needed a date to the prom?”
  • When Maureen Dowd criticized both Tiger Woods and Clinton in a 1997 column, the president mused, “She must live in mortal fear that there’s somebody in the world living a healthy and productive life.”