Secret Interviews Add Insight to Clinton Presidency

The call from the White House usually would come in late afternoon. President Clinton had a few hours open in the evening. Could he come over?

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian, would pick up a notepad of questions and two microcassette recorders and drive his truck down Interstate 95 to Washington. Parking on the South Lawn, he would head to the White House family quarters for interviews so secret Clinton stored the tapes of them in his sock drawer.

What followed sometimes seemed like one of the bull sessions the two had two decades earlier when they shared an apartment in Austin, running George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign in Texas.

In these interviews and a new book that has followed, Branch says he tried to capture Clinton's unvarnished perspective on the events swirling around his presidency, from the consequential to the occasionally comic.

Reluctant to discuss the affair with Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment, Clinton once lamented that it occurred when he felt sorry for himself and that he "just cracked" under the pressure of personal and political setback.

He also relayed how Boris Yeltsin's late-night drinking during a visit to Washington in 1995 nearly created an international incident. The Russian president was staying at Blair House, the government guest quarters. Late at night, Clinton told Branch, Secret Service agents found Yeltsin clad only in his underwear, standing alone on Pennsylvania Avenue and trying to hail a cab. He wanted a pizza, he told them, his words slurring.

The next night, Yeltsin eluded security forces again when he climbed down back stairs to the Blair House basement. A building guard took Yeltsin for a drunken intruder until Russian and U.S. agents arrived on the scene and rescued him.

Then there was Clinton's take on a heated, two-hour discussion he had with then-Vice President Gore just after Gore had lost the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush.

The meeting started politely enough, Clinton recalled. Then Clinton, who felt underutilized during the 2000 campaign, told Gore he could have tilted the election to the Democratic side if he had been dispatched to stump in Arkansas or New Hampshire, both states in which Clinton was popular. Either state would have provided the electoral votes Gore needed to win.

Gore replied that Clinton's scandalous shadow was a "drag" that had plagued Gore at every step of the campaign. The two "exploded" at each other in mutual recrimination.

Clinton may be having some second thoughts about the 79 oral history interviews he gave to Branch during his presidency, their contents not yet released. The transcripts are in binders that fill a long shelf in the office he converted from a garage behind his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

The former president has been on the phone with Branch for hours since he got page proofs of Branch's new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (Simon & Schuster), running "hot and cold" about the account based on Branch's recollections of their conversations.

"I think it's fair to say he's nervous," Branch, 62, said last week at his Victorian house here. Clinton didn't respond to several requests for comment.

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