Secret interviews add insight to Clinton presidency

The portrait that emerges from the 707-page tome is a president who reveled in policy and delighted in politics but "always thought he was trapped in the personal issues," Branch says. The description of Clinton's goals and thinking is more candid and more complex than in Clinton's 2004 memoir, My Life.

Still, Branch's book is more of a one-man show than a three-dimensional perspective: The world of the moment as seen through the president's eyes.

Branch waited until his civil-rights trilogy was done and Clinton's memoirs were published before turning to this book. Clinton didn't know Branch was making his own set of contemporaneous tapes, Branch says, "but I don't think he'd be surprised" that a historian would do so.

As he drove back to Baltimore after each interview, Branch would put a fresh tape in his recorder and recap what the president had just said. If he didn't finish during the hour-long drive, he would sit in his tree-lined driveway in the pre-dawn quiet, stifling yawns and talking into the recorder until he was done.

Declining to detail Clinton's concerns, he says: "The only thing I can say is that I didn't change anything that he asked me to change."

The president would be voluble on almost any topic, from the willingness of India and Pakistani leaders to threaten the death of millions in their standoff over nuclear arms, to his assessment of the Republican contenders vying to succeed him in 2000.

Texas governor George W. Bush "was unqualified to be president … but he had shrewd campaign instincts," Clinton told Branch. Arizona Sen. John McCain "might make a good president, but he had no idea how to run."

Clinton was less forthcoming when the topic turned to Lewinsky, whose affair with Clinton shook his marriage and his presidency. Branch says he felt "squeamish" about asking too much. Branch called the allegations of personal misconduct by public figures "familiar quicksand" from his years of studying the public and private life of Martin Luther King Jr.

When the topic did come up, Clinton usually offered the boilerplate responses he was giving in public. Once a special counsel was investigating first the Whitewater land deal and then the Lewinsky controversy, the two men skirted issues under investigation while the recorder was running to avoid having the tapes subject to subpoena and exposure.

But one night in August 1999, six months after he had survived the Senate impeachment trial, words "spilled out" from an emotional Clinton. He told Branch the Lewinsky affair began because "I cracked; I just cracked."

Branch said in the interview he believed that Clinton "had once maybe strayed more often than that and made a big resolution not to do it in the White House because there was too much at stake." Saying he was "speaking out of school," Branch went on: "From his point of view, he succeeded 99%, but then felt sorry for himself and lapsed."

The Democrats' loss of Congress in the November 1994 elections — on top of the death of Clinton's mother the previous January and the Whitewater investigation — made Clinton feel beleaguered, unappreciated and open to a liaison with Lewinsky, Clinton told Branch. The affair began during the government budget shutdown in November 1995 and resumed briefly a few months after Clinton's re-election in 1996 — a victory that he felt should have been vindication but didn't still his critics.

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