The Clinton Tapes, a 720-page chronicle of eight years worth of candid, once-secret conversations between oral historian Taylor Branch and former President Bill Clinton, travels familiar terrain of the Clinton years, touching on military initiatives (the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo), international diplomacy (Clinton's friendship with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) and titillating anecdotes (Russian President Boris Yeltsin once ended up in his underwear, drunk, on Pennsylvania Avenue).
Before embarking on this 17-year-long project, Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Martin Luther King Jr.'s three-volume biography, had denounced politics after growing disenchanted as a campaign volunteer during the 1972 McGovern campaign -- for which he, incidentally, worked closely with Clinton in Texas. But weeks after Clinton won the presidency in November 1992, the then president-elect summoned Branch to a clandestine dinner at Katherine Graham's house and asked him to be the official historian of the eight years that were yet to come. I met Branch last Monday night at Politics and Prose, where we talked about his no-holds-barred approach to the relatively controversial project -- Clinton kept these cassettes in the back of his sock drawers for fear of his own aides finding out and leaking them to the media. A slightly edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Tali Yahalom: Why did you decide to take on this project? What were your goals and do you think you achieved them?
Taylor Branch: Well you never think you've accomplished a goal, if you're a writer, until everybody on Earth has read your book. I wanted to get a preview of what an unfiltered access to a president being president is like, trying to preserve memories. This is second best, third best, fourth best to actually recording his phone conversations and in meetings. This was his idea -- the project was his idea, it wasn't mine. I'm not making any judgments about Clinton -- it's too soon and I'm too, I'm not impartial. But I do think that it's primary record. And the second goal is that I try to take people inside the White House, to give them some sense of what it's like to be around a sitting president in the white house, which it gives a little relief to the book, but also some primary experience, because I think that we have an unrealistic and an overly ideological cartoon-images of presidents.
TY: How did President Clinton convince you to do this?
TB: He was concerned about the preservation of [historical] material. I was stunned that he was thinking about that before he took office, because I had kind of written him off as a cookie-cutter politician, I was a little cynical about politics, I had even told him that I wasn't going to be involved in any more political campaigns after 1972 because I was disillusioned with politics. There was a little negotiation, because he wanted me to move into the White House and be his in-house historian. I told him that I didn't think that would work, that it wouldn't be taken seriously. We talked about various other alternatives, what he could do, I recommended that he keep a diary all by himself and he said that he couldn't do it.
TY: Why not?
TB: He said that he had a fabulous memory, but that the problem was when he sat down at the end of the day, there were too many topics to talk about. He didn't have any sort of sense of where to start, he could talk all day about any one of 100 things.
TY: How did you manage to keep this project a secret?
TB: I couldn't talk about it, I couldn't tell my friends I was doing it, I couldn't tell most of my relatives. I had a lame, in my view, defensible cover story that we had reignited, that we had gotten reacquainted in occasional conversations about history, and that's what I would say.
TY: People believed that?
TB: Yes, we had been roommates before, and they didn't know how often I was going there, and they certainly didn't know I was going in late at night and doing recordings. A couple of people on his staff occasionally did see me before I could hide my recorders. I know Leon Panetta did, the chief of staff did, but they didn't say 'What are you doing here, what's the nature of that?' I don't really know what went through their mind.
TY: What will this book do for Clinton's legacy and his role in public memory?
TB: Some people think that it reinforces what they already think of him -- that he was all over the place and that he was angry. Or that he felt persecuted by the press. Other people think, my own view is, that, relative to my own image of him, let alone the cynicisms that I felt about him as someone who didn't believe in anything and who was rudderless and a creator of Dick Morris and all that, I didn't see any of that and, in that sense, I felt that I was on another planet from the kind of prevailing consensus. ... There's now a myth that politics is useless and that Clinton, in particular, was Bubba from Arkansas -- there's a lot of condescension there, and I don't think that will live. I think that some of that will be adjusted.
TY: Do you think this book and the tapes, when they are released [Branch said Clinton is definitely planning to release them, probably soon after Hillary Clinton's retirement] will inspire President Obama or future presidents to participate in similar projects?
TB: In my fantasy world, we'd have a debate about taping presidents' meetings and the conversations keep our mitts off of them for 15 years or whatever the right period is, but I don't think anybody would trust ourselves to do that. We wouldn't be able to stay away from it. But it would be a good thing if we did. If you actually were reading what George W. Bush was saying before and after we went into Iraq, or what Ronald Reagan was saying before and after he deregulated the savings and loans associations, we'd have a better sense or view -- we wouldn't engage in this kind of ideological cartoon politics about what presidents do. Over time, I think it would make for a healthier republic.
TY: You mentioned you were squeamish about asking sex-related questions. Do you regret not asking more about Monica?
TB: No, the world doesn't need to know any more about Monica Lewinsky, and the things that he did say, I think, have the confessional ring of truth. He said that self-pity was his lifelong chief character fault that he wrestled with and that that was at the core of this. Now exactly how and every detail, I'm not sure, but he said he cracked, that his resolve cracked, and the way I take this is that he thought he was doing his best job and that his effort to restore the country was totally distorted in a cynical public culture. He felt sorry for himself that he wasn't appreciated and that cracked his revolve not to give in to any of his temptations that I can only assume were more prominent in his life when he was governor. That's as good as an explanation as you're going to get. Everything else is thongs and titillation.
TY: Tell me about the conversation you had with Clinton after he saw a copy of the book. What is your relationship like now?
TB: He has a lot of thoughts, things that could be improved, things that could be stronger, but the only instances, and I'm not going to go into great detail, but he was uncomfortable with how personal the book was, particularly about Chelsea and Hillary, saying they didn't really sign off on this. ... And I said, 'Well maybe so and I don't blame you, because if you wrote a book about my family, I'd be nervous, too, but if you start saying that things have to be taken out because they can be distorted, then it'd collapse so that it's all a political exercise and you won't have the personal balance that I think we really need to understand that it's human beings that run our government. ... It certainly hasn't fulfilled what I think was his nightmare, that this is a book about Hillary in her pajamas and cold cream and the president saying that Chelsea wasn't a good enough ballet dancer. ... Look, if I have to sacrifice a friendship for this, I'd be sad, but I don't think so, we went 20 years without talking, and I totally denigrated him and then, within 10 seconds, we reconnected, and there are some people that you can reconnect with and I don't care how long it is, and I think that we'll always have that.