When Taylor Branch's new book, “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President,” was released, it set off an instant firestorm of beltway conversations and ruminations about the same old stuff — the affair with Monica, his relationship with Al Gore, the Whitewater investigations. The book is about all those things, but underneath is the somewhat simple story of two men, at the pinnacle of their chosen paths, talking.
I spoke with Branch last week. We ran a much-too-short Q&A in this week's edition of the Times, which you can read here. I've posted the full interview on the jump for those of you who don't mind reading something longer thatn 700 words. Branch will speak about the book tonight at the Clinton School of Public Service at 6 p.m.
You knew the president before you took on this project. When you met him, was there something that immediately drew you to him?
It wasn’t that I was drawn to him. We were both assigned to go to Texas together. I knew him from meetings in Washington. We were both just getting out of college and it was during the Vietnam era and I knew him from some meetings in Washington about what people could do to stop the Vietnam War. This was the student activist era and he was always the guy who knew Bill Fulbright. I think there was a guy named Seth Tillman who worked for Fulbright. Because Clinton was from Arkansas, and he knew Fulbright, he would report on that and on what Fulbright was thinking about how to end the war. Sen. Fulbright was the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee and was a venerable but quite controversial figure who had broken with President Johnson over the Vietnam War. That’s all I really knew and we got sent to Texas together and had a pretty bonding experience there. We got shellacked. And when you get shellacked together and you’re responsible, you do a lot of agonizing and soul-searching together. We got along really well and never had any disagreements. This was in 1972. Hillary was there too and I had not met her before. I have a memory of him saying, ‘Can I bring my girlfriend?’ when we got an apartment. The three of us got an apartment together.
But it’s also true that I didn’t leave Texas saying, ‘By god, that’s an expert.’ He was very good at what we did. We weren’t thinking about who might be president because we had just lost by 30 points. We were losers. I personally was so disgusted by politics. By 25, I had already worked in two presidential campaigns. I said I had had enough because with great, great stakes in the world with Vietnam going on and the Watergate break-in going on, the optimism of the civil rights era was coming apart with a lot of recrimination and rioting. With all that going on, it seemed to me that Clinton and I, in a losing campaign, had spent most of our time refereeing fights over who was going to sit where at campaign dinners. The politics was very petty. So, I went back into journalism and to some degree criticized him for sticking in. He was going to go run for Congress and I kind of criticized him for sticking with politics. Years later in the White House he reminded me of what he had said, and I dismissed it at the time, but it was true. He said if you want to work on big problems in the world like the Vietnam war then you have to build up your patience and your ability to deal with squabbles over who sits where in the motorcade, because petty things are part of politics and you’ve got to work through human nature rather than hide from it, which is what he was saying that I was doing in journalism. I thought he was nuts at the time, but I saw so much idealism in him at the White House that I decided maybe he was right. Maybe an idealist does put up with those squabbles over the motorcade. You talk about his idealism, and you watched him over the course of his presidency. Do you feel like that got beat out of him at any point? Or was it always there.
I asked him about that several times in the book. Are you still idealistic after all you’ve gone through? Because when I first got there and started these sessions I was amazed to find it in him because I myself had said that he had already turned into a cynical, standard politician and I was surprised at first to find him so vibrant behind the scenes about what he hoped he could accomplish and what he thought he could do. By the end, after going through all of those scandals that he went through, and getting beat to death, and all his complaints about the press, I said, ‘Are you still optimistic about democracy and about the future?’ He said yes, that all of his wounds and woes and complaints didn’t really have to do with average people. He thought the electorate as a whole would get it right. They might not get it right every time. There was one time around the 1994 election when I thought he did turn cynical. He had given the American people a roadmap back to prosperity and after ending the deficit in the first two years and their reward was to punch him in the nose and take both houses of Congress and by God he was mad. But on the whole, he said, by the end our democratic beliefs don’t mean that the electorate is going to be right every time but over time they will tend to make the right decisions in the public square and you have to believe that. And he did. So he felt that it was all worth it?
Oh yeah. And he still loved being president. There is one sentence in the book, from the height of the crucible of impeachment, he stunned me by saying – I asked him if he had any regrets about this. I asked him if it took all the enjoyment out of being president. And he said, ‘Absolutely not. My only regret is that I have to sleep so much. If it were up to me I’d like to be awake every moment that I’m president.’ And I was stunned that he said that. He really did love it and in some senses, I’m surprised that he’s held up as well as he did. He always said he would run again in a heartbeat if he could. His image is one of a very calculating politician. Did you ever get the sense that you were being, not really lied to, but that he knew this was going to come out in some form one day and was trying to shaping it some way?
That question would apply to general questions like, ‘Am I happy or am I optimistic about the American people?’ And certainly, there can be calculations in a situation like that. But I told him, even before we started the process, that if he was doing it to try to shape his image then he better think twice about it. In a way it was for the same reason that I told him it would have been a mistake to install his own historian like an Arthur Schlesinger, whether it was me or anybody else. I said you can’t really control it because if you’re talking in the moment about what’s going on, you can think all you want about what’s going to make you look good, but unless you’re clairvoyant about what’s going to happen in Bosnia or wherever, then there’s no way you can do that. You can’t speak in detail about contemporary political issues that are controversial in a way that’s guaranteed to make you look good because nobody knows what’s going to happen and nobody even knows what’s right all the time.
So I think there is maybe some self-consciousness on these general questions, about attitudes. But we were discussing tax cuts and gun bills and peace processes and other choices that he was making day in and day out. Of course, I’m not providing you with a verbatim back and forth on that. That will have to wait until he releases his tapes, but I am giving you kind of the gist of it and he doesn’t look great on all of it. There are some things where he’s wrong. Do you think he ever saw these sessions as therapeutic in some way? That it was good to have an independent person to talk to about all these things?
I didn’t want to ask him, ‘Are you getting anything out of this or is this therapeutic for you?’ because I was afraid if he decided that he wasn’t then he wouldn’t go on with it. All he had to do to stop this was not call me the next time. It’s not like he had to pass a bill or anything or that it had its own momentum. We only had each session because he agreed to do it. I hoped that his staff was nagging him but I didn’t know that. So I didn’t really push him to do it. There were times when he seemed in a bad mood about it. ‘I don’t want to talk tonight.’ I think I even said to myself, I shouldn’t have had that session. But other times, at the end of the session, he would say ‘This is really good, we’re getting caught up. This was a good session, thanks for doing this.’ So it seemed to me that his attitude, about the process that we were going through, was quite changeable, which was part of the reason that my role was difficult. The other reason was because I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it, what the right approach would be, what kind of questions I ought to ask, should I press him hard or not? Because it had to be secret and it rested wholly on whatever commitment he had to it, which is why I couldn’t just sit there and say, if he asked me a question, I’m sorry Mr. President I can’t give you my opinion I’m just a historian. I think that if I had said that, our sessions would have dried up. He relished the interaction. Even sometimes when I thought he was picking a fight with me over the middle class bill of rights or whatever. How do you think being from the south, or from Arkansas in particular, shaped his worldview?
I can’t speak to Arkansas specifically. He constantly talked about Arkansas and used a lot of folk phrases. I’m from Atlanta and am a southerner myself. But he had a lot more colorful rural folk language than I did and was always talking about the counties. It was more rural, maybe because Arkansas is more rural than Georgia. He was always talking about Arkansas, but that didn’t mean a whole lot to me. The southern part did mean very much to me because we shared that in common. And I think that, we’re both around the same age and we both grew up in the segregated 1960s in non-political families and both of us slowly got converted to being obsessed with politics because of the race issue during the segregationist era. And I found that had an enormous effect on him and it certainly did on me and that was part of the bond between us that helped us keep this secret and do this history project together, in part because we felt on the wrong side of the general consensus. To us, politics had accomplished miracles because it had gotten rid of segregation and poverty in the south and the stigma in the south and everything that we had grown up with, right down to every day terror. He and I would talk about going to meetings where, if a black person walked in, everybody’s palms would get clammy instantly because you would think that the police or the klan would come. That kind of fear is gone because of the politics of that age. Some citizen protests and a lot of political action over time just to end segregation and that it was a great thing. But the larger political culture has concluded just the opposite, that the political culture kind of went off the rail in the 60s and proved that it was a menace. I think his motive was really to – he thought that was wrong and cynical and his mission was to rescue politics to the nobility that we felt it had earned in our lifetime. And that’s what he was trying to do and that’s why he was so frustrated that so much of the political talk during his time was spitballs about politics being worthless and liberals and conservatives saying that they didn’t have any common agenda, and he thought politics had, to some degree, reduced itself to a student body election where it was just a big argument about nothing of substance. So a lot of his political philosophy was really shaped by the idea that government can do something good?
Right, and that government could do something not just positive, but miraculous. None of us thought that segregation was going to be ended or that we would live to see black people in leadership positions, let alone women. We grew up in a time where women, not only could they not become National Press Club members, but they weren’t even allowed in the building. That’s not that long ago. So, there are a lot of positive things that came out of that era and yet the prevailing image is that since then, government couldn’t organize a two-car funeral, that government is dangerous and it needs to be strangled in its crib, which is what Grover Norquist says. Some see government as a menace and the only parts of government they like, I think Clinton said, are the guns and concrete. But Napoleon liked that and so did Attila the Hun. That didn’t really have anything to do with the democratic tradition. I think that Clinton believes that the American experiment and the democratic tradition, and basically patriotism as we know it, is about the promise of government. From George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt and FDR on down to today, that you’ve got to repair government if it’s wrong, but if you don’t believe that you can solve common problems through politics then you’re going to be in bad shape when you need to believe that. If things really go wrong in the public sphere and this may be a time like that. Nobody thought we could eliminate the deficit when Clinton came to office just like we didn’t think we could end segregation in the 50s. But he did. And we were on a path to pay off the national debt almost by now and instead we’re running a trillion dollar deficit. And it might be because we didn’t appreciate the substance of what he was doing when he was struggling to restore that kind of political capacity because we were so fixated on travel-gate and file-gate and China-gate and Vince Foster and all that other stuff.
A lot of this book is about the press and about the media. It’s not always good because every president fusses about the press, but what’s more interesting is that he would kind of theorize about what had gone wrong. He said the media might have been under competitive pressure of the splintering markets because of cable, and that therefore they thought they had to do more tabloid stuff in order to survive. And that was 15 years ago, long before some of the things we take for granted about the pressures of the mainstream media today. There are a lot of people that really, really dislike the Clintons and probably cannot tell you why.
He said somewhere in the book that if you think, on balance, that the 60s were good for America, you’re going to feel one way about him and if you feel, on balance, that they were a terrible thing for America then you’re going to feel the opposite, you’re going to resent him. Those simple attitudes will explain a lot of the voting patterns. So in some degrees, culture war is an accurate phrase in that we’re still kind of divided by our basic attitudes about the 1960s which boils down to race and war – how you felt about the civil rights movement, how you felt about the Vietnam war. And in that sense, wrestling history is really wrestling our attitudes about what politics can and cannot do. I chose that subtitle, in part, for that reason. Wresting history was also a reference to the wrestling that he did with the attitudes that he felt were undermining his efforts and, he though, our sense of good balance. But also, I was wrestling history because I wasn’t sure what my role was, whether I was his friend or advisor, or what to do if you’re a citizen and the president of the US asks you for your opinion. I was constantly off-balance about what I should do.
They were the 60s personified, and a lot of people who didn’t live through the 60s don’t realize that it has that much to do with it because they just inherited those attitudes or got them from people who did, so they don’t explicitly connect them. But they come from somewhere and in his view, that’s where it comes from. There’s a caricature that exists about Clinton, about a very calculating politician, but you’ve described a much more idealistic person.
Well, he is calculating. There’s no question he’s calculating, and he talks about politics from every conceivable angle but what I’m saying is that I think he’s calculating with a purpose, and that to a surprising degree, that I find people just ignore, that purpose was idealistic in the sense that a selfish person wouldn’t do it. A selfish person wouldn’t have invaded Haiti with 8 percent public support or taken on the national rifle association with the assault weapons ban or bailed out Mexico, or did all those things that he didn’t have much support for doing. It did amaze me, and make me have to bite my tongue, and not to say that I was having all these sessions where there seemed to be a different Clinton, how people could say he didn’t believe in anything when he was so consistently getting beaten to death for doing things that he did believe in.
Even Obama, and I don’t know enough to compare them and I certainly don’t know enough to compare them personally because I don’t know Obama, but Obama said during the campaign that it wasn’t worth taking on the NRA, that it was political suicide and he wasn’t going to do it. Well, Clinton did it from start to finish. Do you think that image or stereotype of Clinton is starting to change and does this book in any way attempt to change it?
I think the objective record should change it. I’m not saying that it totally refutes it because he is calculating and you’ll see all kinds of calculations in there about politics. But the notion that he didn’t have any core values and that he didn’t believe in anything, I don’t think is an objective judgment. And therefore I hope that it doesn’t stand because you want to have a more balanced and accurate sense of what our presidents do and why they do it, so that they’re human beings, then we have to get our history a little better.