On the Political Punch Podcast this week, we had an extensive conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch, whose book “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling with History with the President” provides a rare look into what was truly on President Clinton’s mind during his time in the White House.
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes or by clicking HERE. The PodCast is produced by Huma Khan.
From the very beginning of the Clinton presidency, Branch sat for a total of 79 length conversations with the president. They were tape-recorded, though Clinton kept the tapes. After each conversation, Branch would make extensive recordings on their conversations, from which this 707-page book was created.
He showed the book to the former president, who wanted him to remove some sections, Branch said.
“He was worried mostly about the personal nature of the book — that there was more in the book about Chelsea and Hillary than he expected and he said, ‘look, anything’s fair for me I’ve been through this. I agreed to do this but I’m not sure they did.’ And he was afraid that things about them would be distorted,” Branch said. “I had about four conversations on the phone about it. It was funny. He said ‘You know, there are some things you might want to revise in future editions’ and other things where he thought I could go stronger. He was trying to figure out how people would look at it but mostly he was worried about his family.”
One particular section Clinton thought could be twisted in something it wasn’t: talking about his beloved Chelsea’s efforts at ballet.
“’She’s not an ideal body for a ballerina,’ he reflected. ‘Far from it.’ Chelsea was bigger than most of the other girls, who were flat-chested and tiny. She had big bones. Her feet had bled after practice ever since she was a little girl. Nevertheless, she pursued ballet above other arts or sports for which she was more naturally suited. ‘I’ve always admired that,’ he said. ‘I’ve wondered whether I could ever stick with something for its own sake.’”
Branch thought about taking that section out, for fear it could be twisted by Clinton’s enemies. But his role, he says, “to try to get as much primary material about what a president thinks about and how being a human being in the most personal branch of our government.”
Some quite revealing moments: Clinton railing against Attorney General Janet Reno, whom he didn’t trust and believed to be a source of negative leaks against him. “I didn’t hire her to work for the New York Times and the Washington Post. I hired her to work for me.” He discussed firing both Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Or Clinton, angry that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright didn’t agree to go to Panama for the ceremony restoring local sovereignty to that country. “He had instructed the secretary of state to represent the nation in Panama. He said her puzzling refusal, communicated by newspaper, damaged the foreign policy of the United States. The president did not care about the excuses. He had made sure she knew he was furious.”`
“My goal is to stimulate the flow of revelation, of Clinton when he sounds like he’s being real. It’s not that easy to know. How do I know when he’s actually saying something that is really new and revelatory and my dilemmas were constantly if he — veers off from a discussion of ordering air strikes in Bosnia to an account of birdying a hole with Greg Norman on the golf course, do I interrupt him and say don’t do that and try to get him back on some policy matter,” Branch said.
Branch said much of the media interest in his book has been about Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which the former president thought grew out of self-pity.
“I think what it was was that he had had a resolve not to give in to whatever wayward waves he’d had before the White House because the stakes were too great and he knew that he was a target in that regard and the flaw was that he felt sorry for himself. He thought he was doing a good job across the board on peace, the economy and ending the deficit and doing the things the American people would want but the country was still on a tabloid obsession,” Branch said.
Branch argues that Clinton’s “resolve cracked in self pity, that he’s not being appreciated as a president.” But the Clinton presidency, while dominated for a large part by the affair, was much more than that.
Former President Clinton has said the biggest regret he has is that he did not something about the genocide in Rwanda, an issue that was not in the public eye at the time. But there isn't much mention of Rwanda in the book either.
The former president "said Rwanda was not on CNN, so we care about it now but we care about it in retrospect," Branch says. "We didn’t care about it at the time until it gradually dawned on people that this was a major genocide but a 100 days is a blink of an eye in something like this taking place in Central Africa. And if it’s not on CNN a lot of people didn’t know about it."
Branch recalls, "now they knew about it in the government but it sounded to me as though he was saying there were no practical proposals put forward to intervene in this and it would’ve taken a lightning response that we may wish we would’ve done but at the time, nobody took it seriously. And maybe he’s apologizing about that because… he did say it was his greatest regret not to have done it. But in the book, and at the time when we talked about it, he said it was not on CNN and to kill that many people by primitive means but without great power intervention in the middle of an isolated place like that, it was just not practical – who was going to intervene?… It would’ve have to have been a military intervention and things like that just don’t happen as quickly as they would’ve had to happen."
Clinton’s presidency was also the time when the tension between India and Pakistan almost escalated into a nuclear war, and Clinton expressed disbelief about how willing leaders of the two countries were to kill scores of civilians in that country, just so they could claim victory. Indian leaders would talk about how they had hundreds of millions of more people in their population, so there would at least be some Indians left after a nuclear war to rebuild. And Pakistani leader would talk about how the mountainous terrain in Pakistan would make that country more survivable during a nuclear winter.
"He expressed wonder and said, ‘They really talk like that, they really talk like they could actually survive and win a nuclear catastrophe like that that would poison the whole planet,'" Branch said.
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes or by clicking HERE.