It is astonishing that the recorded conversations between Taylor Branch and Bill Clinton remained secret for the duration of his Presidency, even evading the outstretched hands of Special Prosecutor Ken Starr.
Best known for his massive civil rights trilogy, “America in the Age of King,” which earned him a Pulitzer for the first installment, Taylor Branch joined The Luncheon Society in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Early into his first term, Branch became the Boswell for his old friend, and these recollections became “The Clinton Tapes, Wresting History with the President.”
During those eight years, an often dog-tired Bill Clinton met with Branch in the White House private residence, often late into the night, to dictate an oral history of his presidency in real time. In a world where political memoirs are often scripted to redeem a sullied reputation or settle scores long after the fact, Taylor Branch shows us a President engaged as events were exploding around him. From the hopeful inauguration, though victories, defeats, the impeachment and the subsequent rebound, these recollections from 79 taped conversations served as a release valve for Clinton; it gave him an avenue to discuss things privately that could not be uttered publicly.
The McGovern Campaign in Texas. Both Branch and Clinton knew each other from the 1972 McGovern campaign. They were sent to salvage Texas for McGovern, which voted for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 but were lost to the Nixon landslide by over 30 points. After his sour experience in politics, Branch gravitated towards journalism and history, while his housemate went home to Arkansas to build his political base. Branch, who was disgusted by the political infighting between the Connally conservatives and the Yarborough liberals, could never understand why anybody would want to live in a swamp where petty jealousies ruled the day. Clinton took a different approach and felt that if resolving these personal issues helped to push the public good forward, then the trouble was worth it.
Both Clinton and Branch grew up in the Jim Crow South before the rise of Civil Rights Movement began to force societal changes. They both idolized New York Times reporters like David Halberstam as well as others who reported from the most dangerous parts of the South and exposed the racial hatred accepted as everyday occurrences. Both were perplexed why some of loudest racists they knew growing up would still drive to the other side of tracks to listen to black music. In retrospect, how somebody like Strom Thurmond could be a professional political race baiter but father a child with his black maid irrevocably bent logic.
The memoirs of a witness. The oral history project was Bill Clinton’s idea. Unlike Branch’s more traditional biography of King, with the Clinton book he is presenting more of a primary record. The President often mentioned that historians were impoverished when it came to Oval Office interactions because source material was locked up, often for generations. Decades could pass before historians could fully unwind the course of history. Clinton worried that his self reflections would die with his memory and he wanted these private thoughts to find the light of day. Here Branch is trying to navigate through the mind of the president as he goes through the complex process where policies are created.
Secrecy was the key. Had the project leaked into the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, the meetings would have stopped. Had the tapes come to light, Taylor Branch would have been hauled before the Whitewater Special Prosecutors to publish these private recollections. It remained a guarded secret and with the exception of a few close calls, Taylor Branch completed his project. In the end, Branch was able to elude suspicion because he was seen as a close friend of the Clintons making regular social visits, not a Pulitzer Prize writer compiling a personal oral history.
Taping History. This was the first time since Watergate that a president revealed his character so openly in a recorded fashion. Presidents recorded conversations as far back at Franklin Roosevelt. While The Kennedy and Johnson tapes offered historians rare glimpses into how they operated, most felt Nixon’s Watergate tapes violated the public perception of how a president should act in private. While Branch had encouraged Hillary to begin an oral history project, she appeared too cautious and perhaps, in the end wisely prudent. Branch recalled that the First Lady was a classic Goldwater Methodist who had been radicalized by The Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam.
These sessions were often organized at the last minute. The White House would reach out to Branch, who would drive from his home in Baltimore, and he would be ushered into White House private residence. After each of the 79 taped sessions, Branch would race home to Baltimore and write down his recollections of each gathering. The tapes remained White House property and Clinton later used them for his memoirs. Branch believes that the former President will release the contents to the public, but only when Secretary Clinton returns to private life. In this case, these recollections of converstions were the source material for his book. Branch stated that if he used the actual tapes for the book, he would be obliged to share them with every historian.
What Taylor Branch describes is an Administration that delivered its best game only when it flirted on the edge of disaster. There is a recurring thread of achievement followed by subsequent self-sabotage. In 1993, Clinton entered the White House to reverse the cynicism that had enveloped the political culture only to deliver himself to his critics because of the Lewinski scandal. However, like the comment about Harry Truman, Clinton understood the “fixes that people get into” and even during the depths of the impeachment proceedings, his public approval numbers never fell below 60%.
Most reviewers found Clinton more idealistic in private than the poll-driven caricature he had become while in office. Clinton, on the other hand, felt that the book was far too personal, often intruding upon some tender private family boundaries. When it came to Chelsea, he admired her love for ballet even though he noted she lacked the physique for it. Her father noted that she was larger boned and much taller than her peers. Clinton winced because he thought that others might wrongly feel he was criticizing her daughter’s looks during an undeniably awkward time of her life. However, Branch countered that people would understand the context of the President’s conversation; he was impressed with her ability work hard at something she loved.
Walking through History. Often interrupted by phone calls, Clinton somehow managed to sandwich Taylor Branch into his schedule. It would not be uncommon that Clinton would be interrupted by the drama of the Oval Office, ordering air strikes or helping Chelsea do her homework. His commentary bounced around like a teenager with ADHD, moving from the political scene in the Mideast, to birdying a hole with golfer Greg Norman. Clinton would get up walk around, pull books out of the library in the personal residence, and thread a number of ideas together. In one session, Clinton was so tired that he fell asleep in a barber chair but would occasionally rouse himself to continue to download his thoughts. Branch was impressed that Clinton would tell both sides of the argument, often giving equal time to the arguments of opposing voices.
- Gays in the military. Clinton felt that he lost control of his agenda on Day One when Adam Clymer of The New York Times asked a young staffer if the new Administration meant to fulfill all of their promises. When he replied in the affirmative, the headline in the Times the next morning centered on “Clinton and Gays in the military.” Clinton, who did not want to look as if he being “rolled” by The Joint Chief, reached out for a compromise which became “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” created by the late military sociologist and Luncheon Society member Charlie Moskos. Clinton was surprised by Sam Nunn’s unwillingness to accept Gays in the Military, which cost him from being named Secretary of Defense later in the Administration.
- Louis Freeh and the FBI. He felt that Freeh was out of control at the FBI and felt that every political misstep deserved the appointment of a Special Prosecutor. Freeh set up a series of endless and open-ended dragnets that sifted through the lives of people like Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, which resulted in 20 million dollar investigation that resulted in an acquittal on all charges. In the case of Henry Cisneros, the Texan admitted that he had paid his mistress over the years during his 1993 confirmation hearing but the FBI jumped over the fact that he might have paid out more than he reported. Even Al D’Amato (!) agreed that this did not merit a Special Prosecutor, but the Ethics Division at the Department of Justice felt otherwise. In the end, after all of the millions were spent, Cisneros pled out with a $10,000 fine and no jail time. He was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001. The irony of the Cisneros case is that his mistress, who secretly recorded their conversations and sold them to Fox, ended up in prison. She also was initially offered immunity which as later revoked due to a number of misleading statements. Clinton felt that Freeh’s heavy handed approach to the FBI was reminiscent to the days of J Edgar Hoover.
- Clinton felt that he was stuck with Janet Reno and wanted to fire her. In their private conversations, Clinton was furious that she would often leak their private conversations to both The New York Times and The Washington Post; Clinton would rage that she worked for him not those two publications. Clinton was disappointed that she did not give the President the courtesy to replace her in the second term with Republican Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. However, Clinton knew that if he moved forward to remove Reno, there would be a political firestorm on the Right, perhaps a replay of the Saturday Night Massacre scenario, where moderates might begin to ask for his resignation.
- Clinton regretted agreeing to a Whitewater Special Prosecutor. In retrospect, the President felt he should have listed more carefully to the First Lady, who quipped that that the Republicans would stop at nothing to bring him down, which included subverting the laws regarding Special Prosecutorial behavior. Hillary felt that if Robert Fiske, the first Special Prosecutor, failed to run up any dirt, Conservatives would fire him and find somebody more ruthless. Fiske begat Ken Starr(and later two others) and what started out as The Whitewater Investigation turned into an open ended dragnet. Had Bill Clinton not had the affair with Monica Lewinsky, it would have been a $70 million dollar investigation with nothing to show for it.
- Boris Yeltsen unhinged. The tale of Russian President Boris Yeltsen standing outside Blair House in his underwear and demanding a pizza, only to be restrained by Secret Service agents was kept under wraps for a decade and a half. Yeltsen whose health was shakier than anybody imagined, somehow managed to stay alive during the transitional phase of Russian history, when what remained of the old Soviet Union dissolved into a series of independent countries, whose nationalism began to thaw for time since the days of Stalin.
- 1994 Republican revolution. Clinton was surprised the county had turned on him after his attempts to reform healthcare died in the House. Clinton went out on a political limb, but there was little “Make me do it” from liberals throughout the nation. On Election Day, Liberals sat on their thumbs. Although Clinton felt that “Contract with America” would not last for the long term because it was highly negative, it worked wonders on Election Day.
- In the end, Clinton was thankful for Newt Gingrich. He felt that Gingrich’s behavior helped to win him a second term in the White House. During most of the press conferences, Gingrich would often blast Clinton out in front of the White House, but it was Bob Dole who stood quiet in the back and looked like he was playing second fiddle to a one-man band. Just as Gingrich defined Clinton in 1993-94, Clinton was able to return the favor in the 1996 election tying him to Bob Dole. When Clinton left the White House in 2001, Gingrich had long been shuttered out of government by his own party and left to while away in private life.
- Crisis in Serbia. Clinton found himself dealing with diplomats felt that a Muslim nation should not be a member of Christian Europe. Clinton worried that European cynicism might create a new holocaust, with a generation of Balkan refugees who fell through the cracks while the international community did nothing.
- Clinton’s Disappointment with Liberal-Left of the Democratic Party. Clinton could not understand why so many members of the liberal-left gravitated toward Lani Guinier, considering that the nominee had dug her own grave with critical members of the Democratic Senate who were needed for confirmation. Guinier’s arrogant approach offended liberals like Ted Kennedy as well as the only African American Senators in the Senate, Carole Mosley Brown. Liberals felt that Clinton had whiffed when it came to Lani Guinier, gays in the military, gay marriage, and Welfare Reform, but Branch remarked that there was no “Make me do it” from this group. Nobody marched in the streets for Gays in the Military like they did at Selma, which became the pretext for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He understood, and even respected Peter Edelman’s principled resignation from the Clinton Administration with the passage of Welfare Reform, but he felt that liberals did not understand the delta between “what a President should do” verses what a President could do.”
- Impeachment. Taylor Branch wondered if the Clinton Impeachment was one of the last battles of the 1960’s, the establishment against the counterculture. People like Ken Starr and the House Impeachment Managers reignited the cultural side from their side of the barricades. Clinton felt that his re-election would have given him the upper hand but the Lewinsky affair delivered him to his political enemies. It is somewhat surprising that a personal affair could lead to an impeachment drama while his predecessor, who led the national into war in Iraq under false pretense walks away unscathed.
- Stunned by the Washington Post and The New York Times. Clinton and Branch had been impressed by how both newspapers dealt with the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s and Watergate during the 1970s. Clinton was surprised that during his two terms both newspapers had given his rivals credibility without checking the facts. Clinton was furious that Sally Quinn (Ben Bradlee’s wife and columnist for the Post) had spread rumors that Hillary was having a lesbian affair with their cat’s veterinarian. That being said, Clinton also failed to reach out and build relationships with the press and that night have mitigated matters considerably. However, Hillary Clinton did not want them around. She said, “(Quinn) has been so hostile to us since we got here. Why should we invite her into our home?” The Clintons failed to understand the culture of Washington, where personal friendships and overlapping relationships blur party lines. When Ken Starr was a federal judge, he dismissed a $2 million dollar libel suit against The Washington Post. Starr was considered well liked by those who lived inside the Beltway but grew horns the further he traveled outside of the political bubble.
- Al Gore and the 2000 campaign. Both Clinton and Gore hailed from the same parts of the nation. While their states bordered each other, they were two different people. Clinton was a product of the South while Al Gore was Washington royalty, the son of a legendary Southern Senator. Gore had gone to Vietnam while Clinton remained in Oxford. Clinton was surprised Gore had been beaten up so badly during the Buddhist temple fundraising scandal from the 1996 reelection campaign. However, Clinton never understood why Gore did not run on themes of “peace and prosperity” built since their inauguration. Gore felt that without Lewinsky, he would have won the White House and Clinton could never understand why he was not used in those final weeks of the campaign. After the campaign, they had a bruising Oval Office conversation and did not speak for awhile after that.
- George Bush. Clinton came away from his first transition meeting with Bush concerned that he would go after Iraq in short order. However, he was impressed with the political shrewdness of Bush, who seemed to have leapfrogged over the cultural divide of the 1960’s and ran for the Presidency along the lines of international humility. When it came to John McCain, he thought that he was qualified President but had no idea how to get there. Clinton thought the opposite with Bush.
Farewell statement and lessons learned. In his farewell statement, President Clinton left three goals for his successor: Keep paying down the deficit, build peacekeeping relationships through trade agreements, and to pursue engagement in a diverse world Sadly, Bush chose to ignore two of the three early in his Presidency. For Clinton, he learned three major lessons which resulted from being president: Trust the people, trust the process, and Americans are smart enough to see through the national media.
Final Notes. After the San Francisco and Los Angeles Taylor Branch gatherings wrapped up, it signaled the conclusion of the 2009 season of The Luncheon Society. We will post annual wrap up in a few weeks online. The 2010 Season begin in Los Angeles on Saturday January 9th with Mike Dukakis.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can..