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Historian Taylor Branch on the ‘Clinton Tapes’

October 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Taylor Branch speaks with Jeffrey Brown about his new book, "The Clinton Tapes."
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JEFFREY BROWN: It’s an intimate look at the modern presidency compiled from late-night conversations at the White House between Bill Clinton and his friend, journalist and historian Taylor Branch.

The talks recorded from 1993 to 2001 range from personal observations, to domestic politics, and international flash points, and became the basis for a new book, “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.”

Taylor Branch is Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and his times. He joins me now.

Welcome to you.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s establish first what this is and what it’s — it’s not. It’s not a direct transcript of these tapes. You would have a conversation, and then hand the tapes to the president.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Handed them to him.

It was designed, at my advice, to build his confidence that he could control them, and that he could put as much material unguarded and candid for the future record as possible. And, to do that, he — he needed to have control over them. So, he actually took the tapes that I recorded on my machines.

I had two, in case one malfunctioned. He took them and hid them away. I didn’t find out for years where he was hiding them himself. But, in the second term, he started having to leave and asking me to put them away in his little — in his closet up in a drawer where his socks were.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you — you were then — on your drive away, you would record your thoughts and take notes later on. And that became the basis of this book.

TAYLOR BRANCH: That’s right. I had to drive home to Baltimore, so I would pop another tape in there, and because I believe in presidential history and — so much, I wanted to record everything I could remember about those contacts. And that became the basis for the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you describe this in the book as — quote — “somewhere between politics, journalism and history.”

Now, what does that — what does that mean? How — how should we read this?

Adventure into the White House

TAYLOR BRANCH: If -- if we were a really mature country that could agree that we would record all the president's business lives, so that you could actually see the president acting, and leave it alone for 10 years, you wouldn't need to do what we did.

But we decided that that was in a make-believe world. This was the next best thing we could do. This is -- this is two things. It's the best record that he could leave of an oral history that would show the arguments that really went on behind the scenes.

And, from my point of view, it's trying to take you there with me, because it was an adventure to -- to make these recordings in the White House.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, so, it was his idea, but how much did you end up steering conversations, or how much was it a kind of free-flowing conversation of what had happened during that day or week?

TAYLOR BRANCH: It was his idea. He started it. But I was wrestling history, too, because I wasn't sure what my role was. There was no precedent. Nobody had ever done it before. I had no peer review. It was totally secret.

And what do I do if he interrupts? I'm asking him questions to feed the record, but I don't know everything he knows. He put some things on the record that I didn't even ask about. You know, at the end of his administration, he said he had had an explosive meeting with Al Gore that I didn't even know anything about.

And that's toward the end of the book. But, when he asked me for advice, he wouldn't just sit there and -- and field questions, like a -- he engaged me. And, so, I'm always debating, how much of this project depends on my rapport with him? What should I say?

If he says, "Do you think I should fire the CIA director?" should I say: "I'm just an historian, Mr. President"? Or should I say, "I will give you my best advice, like any other citizen?"

And, sometimes, I would do that, and he would say: "Well, that's why you write history. You don't know anything about politics."

JEFFREY BROWN: But give us -- I mean, that -- that starts to give us some of the anecdotal flavor here. There are -- you -- you touched on everything from international leaders to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Is there an anecdote that stands out for you to help the people at home understand the flavor of this, or something that strikes you that helps us understand the man you were talking to?

Clinton as a father and president

TAYLOR BRANCH: I think it's his -- his talks about Chelsea, ironically, are more revealing of him as a person, not as a politician. Talks about politics in between him and Hillary about politics, between him and foreign leaders about politics are legion.

He admired Chelsea because he said Chelsea pursued things that she loved, even if she wasn't naturally gifted, and like ballet. She's too big to be a ballerina. He said: "I have never done anything like that. I don't have that kind of confidence and that kind of love. I have only been gifted in politics. I admire my daughter for pursuing something for the sheer love of it, whether or not she was ever going to be a star."

And he -- we would be having a conversation like that in the middle of him talking about having airstrikes in Bosnia and trying to explain these really intricate world matters.

But, when you're in the presidency, you can't -- I had always thought that you just kind of checked things off and dealt with them whenever you wanted to deal with them. It's not like that. They impinge. And you could literally see him age in -- in front of me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You could see him age during the years you did this?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had -- you had known him 20 years before. And then there had been a gap where you -- you didn't have much interaction. What -- what did these conversations reveal about that man you had known 20 years before?

TAYLOR BRANCH: I had known him 20 years before, when we were 25. Then, it was like Rip Van Winkle to wake up 20 years later and realize that this old buddy is president of the United States and initiating this process.

What it revealed to me was that he was intensely cerebral. He thought all the time. He couldn't do just one thing at a time. He had a restless mind. He was constantly trying to solve problems of -- in the world. And, much to my surprise, he's constantly worrying about trying to fix things in the world, not that he's apart from politics and winning. He loved politics.

He really thought that it was noble and that it was a great hope for this country, that that was patriotism, but that we were trapped in a cynical age. And he hoped to try to lead us out of the cynical age.

And it was with great gnashing of teeth toward the end that he said he forfeited the chance to help lift us out of that cynical age with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, having done battle with it for a long time.

But, at the same time, he would say, we have got 20 million jobs. We're paying off the national debt. We're in peacekeeping operations all over the world. We finished our wars. We defined the politics of them, so that they didn't eat us alive. And, in that sense, maybe we have set -- maybe we have set a record for restoring politics.

Friend or historian?

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, speaking of gnashing of teeth, though, I mean, Bill Clinton is always described as a gifted, but flawed man and politician.

There are moments here where, clearly, your own friendship was tested or your sense of patience was tested, as well.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes. We had -- we had a few arguments.

Sometimes, you know, I never really knew whether he -- he was teasing me out. We had big arguments when he lost both houses of Congress and proposed the middle-class bill of rights, which I thought was pandering. And he knew I thought it was pandering. But he almost forced me to say that, so that he could explode and explain to me why he was going to do it anyway, that he had -- he had set the country on a course to end the deficit, and he had -- and to come out of the recovery and have jobs.

And his reward for that was to lose both houses of Congress, because he got painted as a big-government tax-and-spend liberal. And he said, if people -- if people want free government, and to tear down the government, and have tax breaks and a holiday and a party, and pretend that everything is free in life, I will give it to them.

But he -- I thought, you know, in a way, he was almost baiting me to say, "Mr. President, that's not what you really believe." But it was very uncomfortable at the time. That's when -- when I left and put on the tape recorder that night, I said, you know, I need some -- I need some Tylenol here.

TAYLOR BRANCH: This was a very rough night. I didn't have fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, again, you weren't sure what your role was, right?

TAYLOR BRANCH: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: As friend, or as -- as journalist, or recorder of history?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Recorder.

I knew that it was not to assess this president, because he actually tried to get me early on to be his Arthur Schlesinger, and move in, and write an approved version. I said, you can't really control that any longer in this day and age. The best you can do is to create an unvarnished record.

And that's -- that's what this is. This is a record of what's going on behind the scenes, how the personal side of the presidency meets the political obsession of a president like this, and together with my sense of trying to take a reader in there to give them a sense of what it's like to be with the president when he's doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Taylor Branch. The book is called "The Clinton Tapes."

Thank you very much for talking to us.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Jeff.