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Demystifying the Clinton Presidency: An Interview with Historian Taylor Branch

In his unprecedented account The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, historian Taylor Branch offers a vivid and candid portrayal of the inner workings of a modern presidency based on 79 secret conversations with President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001.           

After a 20-year hiatus, President-Elect Bill Clinton contacted his friend Branch in 1992 and told him that he wanted to preserve an unfiltered record of the presidential experience for future generations.  The two eventually agreed to create a unique oral history.  Branch conducted extensive interviews of President Clinton through the eight years of his administration--and the taping was never publicly revealed.  Branch would drive to the White House from his home in Baltimore--usually late at night at Clinton's behest--and talk with the president about timely issues, personal concerns, and much more. 

Clinton kept the interview tapes in "a safe place"--his sock drawer--and Branch did not have access to those tapes for the book.  Instead, Branch's account rests on details he recorded immediately after each meeting covering the matters President Clinton discussed while capturing the atmosphere of the White House.

Branch's book reveals a president who was always on the job--in contact with legislators or military leaders or heads of state, or planning policy or speeches, as he assisted his daughter Chelsea with homework or invited Mrs. Clinton's comments on issues even as he spoke with Branch. 

President Clinton emerges as an idealist, a political genius, and an enthusiastic campaigner with an incredible memory for detail, a folksy sense of humor and a remarkable resilience through catastrophe and personal pain, as well as a man struggling with self-doubt and moments of deep frustration and regret.

Branch depicts the intensity and pressures of the presidency as Clinton dealt with perplexing issues from budget battles in Congress, health care reform, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, to peace efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, turmoil in hotspots such as Iraq, North Korea, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and his own legal issues and impeachment.

Branch writes of his project: “Revelations lay hidden everywhere for specialists and regular citizens alike. A U.S. president was framing issues, telling stories, and thinking out loud. Inescapably, he let on what he did and did not notice inside the nation’s central bunker – what penetrated the walls of government and the clatter of opinion, and how he shaped and responded to what penetrated.”

Branch carries the reader on his shoulder in the White House, never knowing what to expect from a president who offered fascinating anecdotes and opinions.  A few examples from the book: 

  •  Clinton's deep admiration for Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and his view Gore-Mikulski would have been a winning ticket in 2000.
  • Russian President Boris Yeltsin's drunken, late-night meandering in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue to hail a taxi for pizza.                       
  • Clinton's phone discussion of air strikes in Bosnia with the Secretary of State while finishing a crossword, dealing solitaire, and making comments on tape.
  • Clinton's view in 2000 of George W. Bush as a talented campaigner unqualified to be president, and John McCain as qualified with no idea how to run.
  • Clinton's amazing ability to recall without prompting arcane facts, legal precedent, names of people he'd met only once, and phone numbers.
  • The besieged president's response to impeachment and personal scandal--and his surprising popularity in the face of bitter attacks on his character.
  • Clinton's revealing talk with Vice President Al Gore over responsibility for losing the 2000 presidential election.
  • Osama bin Laden's plan to kill the president.

The Clinton Tapes has been widely hailed as a truly unique and valuable blend of history, memoir, journalism and presidential scholarship.  Historian Douglas Brinkley commented in the Los Angeles Times that the book "proves to be a remarkable read, paying out the huge dividends of history that Branch had hoped for."

Historian Taylor Branch is perhaps best known as the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of his acclaimed trilogy on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, America in the King Years:Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.  He has written other nonfiction books and a novel, and is a former staff journalist for The Washington Monthly, Harper’s, and Esquire. He is also recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("Genius Grant") (1991), the National Humanities Medal (1999), and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's Lifetime Achievement Award (2008).

By telephone from the East Coast, Branch recently discussed the creation and challenges of his groundbreaking presidential history, The Clinton Tapes.

Robin Lindley:  Congratulations on your unprecedented account of the Clinton presidency.  I also appreciate your monumental three-volume history of the King years.

TaylorBranch:  That was my life's work.  The Clinton book was an accident.  I'm not saying it wasn't a passionate accident, but it wasn't something I devoted myself to as a life's employment the way I did with King.  It came to me rather than me pursuing it. 

Lindley:  Your King and Clinton projects were very different, but do you see unifying threads?

Branch:  Both of them are about keeping faith with the American tradition that politics in the town square can be ennobling and that we can enhance freedom through politics.  Certainly that was true in the King era although one of the things that united Bill Clinton and me--as we discovered--was not only that we had both been politicized in a favorable way by the civil rights era as kids out of nonpolitical families so that we had a lifelong enchantment with politics, but when Clinton was president he saw his mission as trying to redeem our political culture from an unwarranted cynicism about what politics could be. 

For some reason our sense of politics was out of whack in that we were needlessly cynical in part because of the contentiousness since the 1960's over what it meant and whether [politics] failed in Vietnam or failed to deliver civil rights rapidly enough, or alternatively whether it had crammed civil rights down the throats of people from an overbearing government.  Clinton was trying to rescue [our  politics] and the great tragedy of presidency was that the Lewinsky scandal essentially undermined his effort to restore a sense of balance and purpose in our national life.

Lindley:  When you worked with Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1972 on the McGovern campaign in Texas, did it seem that you were working with a future president and a future secretary of state?

Branch:  No, not a bit.  Part of it was because we lost Texas by 30 points.  We weren't thinking very optimistically at the time.  In fact, I was disaffected and disillusioned with all politics and never came back to it, which became kind of [a barrier] between us.  I didn't see him for 20 years, and I thought he was a kind of an energizer bunny on automatic pilot for politics.  Hillary and I, certainly I and to a lesser degree Hillary, were more typical of our generation--disillusioned that a lot of hope of the sixties seemed to be dissipating and that the war was continuing and that politics was petty.

When we parted in Texas, Clinton was still optimistic about politics.  I thought it was just because he was ambitious, but he convinced me in the White House that, through a career in politics, he retained a sense of purpose that he got in the civil rights movement--that this great political upheaval in the 1960's really changed the everyday lives of millions of people for the better, far beyond what we even realized at the time.  It set loose freedom for white Southerners--not just black Southerners--and for women and for immigrants and for lots of other people that are still being affected by the politics of that era.

One of the most telling quotes in the book is when [Clinton] said that he could with uncanny accuracy predict how people would vote by their answer to one question:  Even now, on balance, do you think the sixties were good or bad for America?  If they say good, then they tend to vote Democratic, and if they say bad, they tend to vote Republican.   So we're still divided by that culture war.

Lindley:  That's still a telling question.  Then, 20 years later--in 1992, President-elect Clinton taps you to serve as someone like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in the Kennedy administration as a court historian.

Branch:  I resisted that proposal.  Clinton was kicking around a lot of ideas, all off of his instinct, which I believe was correct.  He thought the raw materials for future history were getting more slim and vague, that the real humanity of what it was like to run the government was getting buried in records that didn't preserve the drama the way that telephone conversations did.  He even talked briefly about whether he could defy convention--and perhaps sanity--and record his phone conversations.  Failing that, his first instinct was an Arthur Schlesinger-like court historian. 

Because I respected his instincts that we had to preserve the record, I did my best to give him the best, most objective advice I could, which is I didn't think an Arthur Schlesinger would be taken seriously if he sat in the Clinton White House and pretended to write an objective account.  It would be seen as tainted.  I did my best to not say that it wasn't a good idea simply because I wouldn't do it.  I wouldn't do it even if it was a good idea because I wasn't willing to give up the Martin Luther King project.  I knew that going in to be an Arthur Schlesinger for four or eight years would be a significant interruption in something I was obsessed with and I was afraid I wouldn't have the lifetime energy to come back to it.  I knew it would take another decade or so to finish.  I said I don't think it's a good idea for you to get anybody in that role, and even if it were a good idea, I couldn't do it.  That's when he began pursuing other ideas, and we came up with doing an oral history.

The oral history set off a new round of talks.  How do you do it?  How do you keep it secret?  Does it need to be kept secret?  What's the safest way of doing it?  Who should keep custody of it?  Who should be the interrogator?  Originally the idea was that I would do it only for a time, and we'd train somebody who was more convenient in the White House on the staff, but we never did. 

Lindley:  You and President Clinton were able keep this oral history secret from his staff and the press through his presidency.   How did you keep it secret from your family, your fellow writers?

We kept the project secret by not talking about it, even to my extended family.  My greatest anxiety was that a careless word on my part would precipitate news that would kill not only Clinton's oral history but also the potential for future ones.  Two extraneous factors helped.  First, I lived in Baltimore instead of Washington, which meant I was not surrounded every day by people obsessed with secrets in national politics.  Second, I was consumed by my regular work on the King-era trilogy.

Lindley:  You had an extremely challenging role as a personal friend, a listener, a historian, and maybe even a therapist of sorts.  In fact, you did advise President Clinton on occasion.

Branch:   Yes, there were a couple instances, which gets down to the etiquette.  I was acutely aware of the times when I'd address him as Bill as opposed to Mr. President.  Nearly all the time, even when we were alone, I'd call him Mr. President because we were on the tape and he was the president.  If I referred to him as Bill, either personally or in memos, it was because I was asking permission to step outside the historian's role, which was more formal, into a more personal stance as his friend to say I'm concerned about your mood, or I can't help notice [issues] from this role. 

It was very difficult.  There was no precedent for this role.  There was nobody I could consult because I couldn't tell anybody we were doing it or vet it with a peer group.  How am I doing?  What questions should I ask?   We had to invent it along the way.

Lindley:  And you got a unique view of the presidency.  I tried to skim the book, but couldn't because each story is so involving.

Branch:  Most presidential histories are topical.  They would take an issue and more or less digest it and say this is what the president confronted, this is what he did about, this is the nature of it, and this is how he left it.  But of course, that's not the way I found it.

I had this image that the President checked off on the issues he wanted to deal with, with a sense of distance and command about all of this--but at least with Clinton, it seemed to me, he was bombarded in a crucible with everything at once.  Even in our sessions, in which [he was] supposed step outside being president to remember what had just happened, but he couldn't even do that.  He was the President while he was remembering these episodes and he was buffeted all around between foreign issues, domestic issues, political issues, substantive issues--things that are hard to figure out--and then Chelsea would come in for help with her homework.  I tried to be honest in the book just to portray it as it was, more or less taking the reader on my shoulder.

Lindley:  One thing that comes through in the book is that you were a wonderful friend to President Clinton.

Branch:  He didn't always think that. Sometimes he'd say that's why you write history and I'll do the politics and what you're suggesting is impractical.  I didn't know, for example, on Haiti that there was a subtext that he was feeling terribly exposed, doing something with virtually no public support, and there was an undertone that I had talked him into it.  He was saying it was right and I'm going to do it anyway, but at the same time I want you to know I let the policies get away from me to a degree that I never I thought was possible, and that may cost me this presidency.  There were some times that we were very uncomfortable.

Lindley:  Why did you choose Wrestling History with the President as your subtitle?

Branch:  Doing this project made me realize more than ever before that much of our contemporary politics is really a subconscious [veil] over our attitudes about history, over such questions as what is the role of government?  What is it we can and cannot do?  What are our attitudes about politics and politicians?  Nearly all of that is about history and what we derive from it. 

Even from the Martin Luther King work, I had been struck by the long and stubborn cultural hold of ideas like growing up with the notion that the Civil War was not about slavery, which was a defense mechanism in the South, or that Reconstruction was about rescuing the beleaguered South from tyranny.  Those myths, once convenient and what people wanted to believe, can sometimes cripple our politics and keep people from thinking.  So, to some degree, Clinton was really wrestling history in the sense that he was trying to get people to see that ordinary people really did have a lot at stake in how we dealt with public questions, that it wasn't just for entertainment, and that politicians weren't just creatures trying to gratify their desire for glory [but] there was some element of idealism.  And those ideas were not in fashion. 

He was wrestling history in the sense of trying to ennoble the profession [of politics] or get some sense of balance about the profession because, he said, we're going to need it if we're ever in any trouble and if people believe that there's no hope in politics we're really going to be in bad shape, and maybe we’re there now. 

Similarly, I was wrestling with history in part because I agreed with him and in part because he really challenged the whole basis of my career, which was that, there was more idealism in journalism and writing about politics than there was in the profession of politics.  That's why we parted in 1972. 

And lo and behold, there I am in the White House and confronted by my realization that my old friend that I'd written off as a hopeless Arkansas pol seemed more idealistic to me than the way my friends in the press were writing about him.  They were more cynical than he was.  In that sense, I was wrestling with my own attitudes and my own career choices, as well as with my role: whether I was just a friend, just a sounding board, or what I kept telling myself: my primary role is that this won't see the light of day until long after he is president and what I'm really trying to do is get as much candid material on the record that will help future generations understand how the people who run their government really perform as human beings. 

Lindley:  You wrote, in effect, that you want to penetrate myths that encase historical figures.  In terms of debunking myths, you've portrayed a first family that we didn't see much in the press, with a warm personal relationship between the President and Mrs. Clinton who were very protective of their daughter Chelsea.  And Hillary Clinton appears funny and bright and more defensive of the President's decisions than he was.

Branch:  That's true.   Those are the parts of the book, by the way, that he was the most anxious about or critical of me.  I went up to Chappaqua with the proofs as the book was going off to press and told him I couldn't change it, although he caught some actual factual errors that I literally called into the printing office with Simon & Schuster to change.  I had Jiang Zemin as the premier of China, and he said no, they changed that, and he was the president, and we changed that. 

He caught some factual errors, but he was upset and wanted to change the personal substance--that there was too much in there about Hillary and Chelsea.  He said they hadn't agreed to be part of this oral history and he was protective of the family and worried that the material about them would be distorted.   He said Hillary is still in politics as Secretary of State and I shouldn't have anything in there about her dreams of Henry Kissinger.  Some of the stuff that really wasn't about him being president, and especially about Chelsea.

I said if you start taking things out because you're afraid they might be distorted, then eventually you'll just have the same cartoon images of the presidency that we fight about now and undermine our whole effort to make it more rounded.  You've got to trust people to take these personal stories in context.  He in turn did trust the voters, and one of the comforts through the turmoil of his presidency was that his approval ratings stayed up at 60 percent right through the impeachment so the voters saw through a lot of the scandal mongering and the tabloid hysteria to the things that really mattered to them in politics.  I said I have to do the same with my readers.  He was worried about his family. 

His presidency was tainted by scandal and he was impeached over an affair that he admitted so I don't blame people from afar for saying they must have had a cold and heartless marriage, but what I saw was anything but that.  I can't speak for their intimate lives, but they certainly had a startling communion on virtually everything.  I don't know of anything he excluded her from and that she wasn't personally conversant with.  The warmth between them was amazing. 

And I got to see Chelsea grow up.  She was in high school in the first term and in college in the second term.  The little interactions I had with her were a pleasure to record even though the President was worried that some of the things he said about Chelsea would be distorted, but so far I don't think they have been. 

Lindley:  The press often portrayed Clinton as insecure and even petulant, but you reveal a brilliant, engaging, enthusiastic and resilient leader with endless curiosity and a great memory and mind for detail. 

Branch:  I hope so.  I'm just finishing a month-long book tour, and I think it's slow to register with people because it's a very unusual and even eccentric book about a president.  Even the photos are not the standard Clinton with other heads of state.  Instead, there's Clinton posing with my father's birdfeeder or my son playing golf so it's more personal, even though it deals with every issue from Bosnia to Supreme Court Justices with his take on the issues. 

I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said [things like] I met Bill Clinton at a dinner with 200 people in Arkansas in such and such a year, and four years later I saw him in an airport and he remembered me.  That truly is a gift that sometimes puts me in awe.  He really enjoyed working the crowd and making some sort of connection with every human being in it.  On top of his utter love for politics and everything from strategy to statistics, is his gift on the human side for making contact with people was quite remarkable.

Lindley: Did President Clinton ever discuss death threats or fear of assassination?

Branch:  Clinton mentioned worry about attack or assassination only once: before his trip to South Asia in 2000 [when intelligence indicated that Osama bin Laden had assassins on the trip route], as recounted in the book.  Otherwise, he seemed pretty indifferent, even when describing bullets that hit the White House fired by a deranged man or the plane that hit the White House [in 1994] in a bizarre suicide.  

Lindley:  It must have been difficult for you to talk with him about the various scandals especially those involving infidelity.  You must have tread gingerly around those issues.

Branch:  I certainly did.  He didn't want to talk about it, and we were under orders not to talk about, certainly on tape.  Toward the end, I apologized for that saying we weren't supposed to talk about [the Lewinsky affair], and I really didn't know what to say.  He said in public that it was unforgivable, and he said in private that it was a stain on his presidency and would undermine his attempt to rescue us from cynicism.  What more is there beyond the salacious detail of what color her thong was?  I wasn't going to ask about that. 

But I apologized at the end by saying I was perhaps too squeamish for not asking did he want to talk about that.   What could he do?  This was affecting his marriage and his presidency and it's a scalding issue.  Should I have offered to talk with him about it as a friend if not for the historical record, and he said no, it wouldn't have done any good.  And he did talk about how it was even harder on Chelsea even than on him or on Hillary, and how Chelsea banned him from Stanford for two years. 

I did not grill him on it because I didn't see any purpose in it for the historical record, and I didn't feel comfortable doing it.

Lindley:  Have you been in touch with President Clinton since the book came out?

Branch:  As I said, I talked with him when I took the proofs to Chappaqua.  He called me a bunch of times afterward with [comments like] you could have gone stronger here or I checked my tapes on those details.  His only worry and anxiety was about the personal material, but I have not talked with him since the book came out. 

Of course, [our] collaboration was a unique period in which what he was trying to do as president dovetails with what I've been trying to do all my life, or at least during my career, which is writing about presidential history.  

We had a partnership that was unique.  I don't have a role in the Clinton Global Initiative because I don’t have a billion dollars to give him, so I don't think we'll have as much interaction as we did again, but I think we'll retain our personal connection and I hope he sees that the personal side of this story, particularly with Hillary and Chelsea, is not being used to undermine the historical value and not being distorted and be more comfortable with that than when I first showed that to him. 

Lindley:  What do you see as President Clinton's greatest triumphs and greatest failings?

Branch:  Clearly his greatest failings were the Lewinsky scandal and his inability to charm the press, which he analyzed.  One of his good qualities was that he would be mad and he would vent.  No president is satisfied with his press coverage.  He was unusual because he saw a big structural change and he saw the press coverage as trivial and tabloid.  Even when he was mad, he wasn't mad long before he was trying to figure out why.  He had endless theories. 

Bill Clinton is essentially a puzzle solver, whether it's a crossword puzzle or a political puzzle like how to have peace in Northern Ireland or the Middle East.  He had a puzzle with the press and he couldn't figure it out.  I was stunned by the end when he said that his relations with his generals in the military, despite gays in the military and the fact that he didn't serve in Vietnam, were far better than his relations with the press, and that drove him nuts. 

I would have to say his relations with the press were his biggest failure through scandal and the scandal mongering, but that doesn't answer the question of what the press was responding to, and it may have been the unconscious desire of the culture to treat politics as a form of cynicism or anxiety about our future.  In that sense, he may have been dealing with larger historical tides than he was capable of [understanding].

As a functioning president, eventually he came to say he had to put all of that aside and just get up every morning and figure out the best thing to do for the American people and focus on that.   In that sense, all of the things he managed to pull off in the teeth of all this look pretty darned good. I mean 4.2 percent unemployment looks pretty good now, and 20 million new jobs. 

And something he doesn't get much credit for, speaking of the military, is he had to balance military and political objectives in virtually everything he did whether it was Bosnia or Kosovo or even Haiti, and the military had confidence that he was not asking them to do something that was inherently political by force of arms.  Therefore, all of his military initiatives had finite and discrete objectives--it doesn't mean all the political objectives succeeded, certainly not in the Middle East and Haiti--but he didn't unbalance and burden the military and he wound up with almost zero casualties in these [initiatives].  That is why his relationship with the military was really good by the end.

Finally, his success with the budget.  He balanced the budget after 25 years in which nobody thought it was even feasible.  He not only balanced the budget but started paying off the national debt so that we were on a course to have paid off the entire historical national debt of the United States by 2010. 

He was grossly underappreciated.  He said it wasn't just a matter of economics and finance, but it was a matter of showing we were in control of ourselves, which goes to the heart of the democratic experiment.  If you're in control of yourself then you can have a constructive political agenda, and that's part of restoring our sense of confidence and idealism in public affairs and connects us to patriotism.  That's what the people we revere--Lincoln, Washington, and the others--did.  They gave us a sense of purpose and confidence. 

So beginning to pay off that debt and mastering the deficit is very seldom mentioned in retrospect about Clinton.  Most people want to know more about Monica Lewinsky and not very much about those things that really could have been, and still could be of lasting value to future generations.

Lindley:  Will your tapes and transcripts be available to researchers and the public?