Are Secret Clinton White House Tapes Lost to History?

Mar 18, 2014 4:49am
GTY bill clinton jef 140317 16x9 608 Are Secret Clinton White House Tapes Lost to History?

Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, June 10, 1999. (Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the thousands of pages of documents released by the Clinton Library recently, two had this tantalizing notation at the top: “Tape One, Side One.”

That stamp appeared on transcripts of two conversations Bill Clinton had behind closed doors with aides inside the Oval Office. They included the president’s ribald remarks on race, frank talk about gays, and even how to prepare for Y2K. And they were captured on cassette tapes.

All of which raises the question: Could there be “Clinton Tapes” — in the tradition of Nixon, Kennedy and LBJ? Might we hear Clinton in his famous Arkansas twang musing that Rep. Tom DeLay was “probably” to blame for the notorious dragging death of a black man? Could we hear Clinton admit that talking about gays caused his poll numbers to drop? Or that he wishes he could advise Americans to buy shotgun shells before the millennium?

That seems doubtful, as the newly-identified recordings appear to be lost to history. When ABC News asked for copies of the tapes, officials at the Clinton Library (part of the National Archives and Records Administration) said they couldn’t find them.

“The creation of this particular audio tape, its use, and any transcription [aides] chose to make were all done by White House staff prior to the transfer of Clinton Presidential records to NARA, and as such we simply don’t know much more than what can be found by searching the holdings as our Archival staff has done,” library official Diane LeBlanc wrote ABC News in an e-mail.

Transcripts of the remarks provided some of the more tantalizing tidbits from the Clinton Library’s latest batch of previously withheld documents release Friday.

At the transcribed sessions with speechwriters ahead of his 1999 State of the Union, the president joked that then-Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was “probably a major suspect” in the dragging death of James Byrd in Texas the previous summer.

In a discussion over the politics of the parents of Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten and left for dead, Clinton said that “white people in Wyoming … are by definition Republicans.” And expressing his doubts about whether to bring up Shepard’s murder in the address, Clinton revealed to aides that his pollster warned his “numbers go down” every time he mentioned gays in a speech.

The casual Oval Office chatter offers readers a side of Clinton that Americans never saw while he was in office. The actual audio recordings, on cassettes referenced in the transcripts, could provide incalculable historic and political value today.

But there’s no telling what happened to the tapes.

One of the aides who was in on the meetings in 1999 told ABC News that the recordings were made for the benefits of the speechwriters, who felt they could take better notes by taping the talks and having them transcribed.

A verbatim of one of the closed-door sessions also has Clinton joking that he wished he could tell Americans to (as an aide suggested) buy “shotgun shells and bottled water” amid the Y2K scare. Clinton instead lamented that the draft speech before him was “a little more bull-sh–ty” on the topic.

 

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