TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Clinton had another big secret when he was in office. He recorded an oral history of his White House years with my guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. They made tapes in spite of the fact that White House recordings were pretty much taboo after Watergate. The president kept the tapes secret and hidden. The oral history sessions were conducted in parts of the White House where Clinton and Branch were unlikely to be seen by staff, often late at night. After each session, on the way home to Baltimore from the White House, Branch would record his impressions of the conversation. Branch's personal recordings are the basis of the new book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." Taylor Branch is best known for his three-volume biography of Martin Luther King. Clinton knew Branch long before choosing him to be his oral historian. They'd worked together on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, and Branch shared an apartment then with Clinton.
Taylor Branch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Would you describe what this diary project was?
Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Author, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President"): Well, it was an oddity that I didn't expect to happen. I hadn't seen president-elect Clinton for 20 years, and out of an invitation that came out of the blue, I saw him for the first time with a lot of Secret Service agents around him. And he pulled me aside very quickly and asked two questions about history growing out of my civil rights books, saying he'd read the footnotes coming out of presidential libraries of Kennedy and Johnson and did I think the records for his library would be good enough for future historians to bring to life what was about to happen in his? And I was stunned that he asked a question like that before he even took office and told him that our historical records are indeed atrophied and make it harder and harder to do that. And as a remedial remedy or project, he initiated a diary, an oral history that we ran secretly all through the eight years of the Clinton presidency. That's what this book is about, that diary process.
GROSS: What were the ground rules for the diary and for your interactions with him?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, we discussed them at great length. And when we decided on an oral history, a periodic oral history to be recorded in secret, we discussed how that would be done and mostly how it would be protected to give him the confidence that it would not be subpoenaed or discovered, number one, or publicized, and number two that he would maintain control over it, that nobody else, including me, would be able to reveal it. And we discussed those conditions and how that would be done right down to where they would be stored and how the tapes would be handled, how many tapes would be made and where they would be kept, and so there was a lot of discussion on that.
To me, the goal of it was to make him feel free that he controlled it so that he could be as candid as possible and leave a record for future historians to examine.
GROSS: So where were those tapes stored? I mean, weren't they stored at least for a while in Clinton's sock drawer?
Mr. BRANCH: They were ultimately stored in his sock drawer, yes. I didn't know that for some time. I always rewound the two tapes. I had two little recorders that we would use, and at the end of each session, I would rewind them and mark them because I was really concerned since he was doing this personally that it be clear what they were. I supplied him with boxes to keep them in and had to substitute larger boxes as we went along.
And he would take the tapes, and I didn't know where they were, except that he was keeping them secret, and he was keeping them personally. Sometimes, the White House would intervene. There would be some meeting or a call or an international call, or there was going to be an air strike in Iraq, and he would have to leave a session hurriedly before I got them rewound. And sometimes in the second administration somewhere there, he told me to keep them and then finally showed me where he kept them so that I could put them away.
And on the second-floor residence, in the little living room that they have next to their bedroom, there's a very grand walk-in closet that has lots of drawers in it. And the top drawer in one of them, next to the bathroom, had his socks in it, and he had the boxes, each with a set of the tapes in the back of that sock drawer, and I would put it in there and make sure that he had complete sets of each one.
GROSS: Now, you say that you and Bill Clinton were very aware of the dangers of making tapes in the post-Watergate era. So what happened when scandals did start to break? Were the tapes subpoenaed? Who asked you for tapes? Who did you have to present them to?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, he had the tapes. Nobody asked me for anything, but once Whitewater started, he was subpoenaed regularly, as I understand it, for records that might pertain to Whitewater. And his counsel, Lloyd Cutler, asked me point blank one day when I made the mistake of just stopping by to say hello, if I was keeping a diary with the president. So somebody in the White House told him, and he felt honor obliged to disclose that to the special prosecutor, who was then up and running, not the fact that we were a diarist but to disclose it to the lawyer, David Kendall, who was handling those matters for both Clintons.
And David had to listen to some of the tapes, so he knew about them. And he had to respond to the subpoenas, asking for pertinent information in the president's possession about these topics that they were investigating. And we were on pins and needles, that is the president and I and eventually Hillary, about whether those submissions that he made would tip off the special prosecutor's office that the disclosures that, the little items that he picked out that he said were responsive to the subpoenas, comments about Whitewater or whatever, were part of a larger project and that that would leak. But fortunately it didn't happen. And I don't really know very much about Kendall's interaction with the special prosecutor except to say that we never got a subpoena for them, and I never got a subpoena about this project. So we escaped somehow.
GROSS: Now, you write that Bill Clinton initially thought that Whitewater was a trifling nuisance, and he didn't have a clue it would become the lynchpin for an investigation that would lead to the impeachment process. So since he thought it was a trifling nuisance, how did that affect how he handled Whitewater when the story broke?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, he…
GROSS: And you know, for people who don't remember or were too young to know about it, just very briefly explain what Whitewater was.
Mr. BRANCH: Well, that's a wonderful question, Terry. A lot of people can't describe what Whitewater was to this day. Whitewater is the name of a real estate development that Bill and Hillary Clinton invested in with partners when he was governor, and the investments went sour in one of the busts in the 1980s. But he did it in partnership with somebody who owned a savings and loan in Arkansas that later - a small one, but that that later went bankrupt. So when he became president, it got caught up in allegations that, as best I can state it, he may have used the powers of the state of Arkansas to protect his losing investment or have profiteered somehow.
Now, none of those allegations ever panned out, and at the end of Clinton's presidency, the special prosecutor said that there was nothing chargeable and no wrongdoing, but the allegations were kept alive for one reason or another that he had profiteered. He actually lost money - the Clintons lost money. But somehow because it was murky or something, it became the premise for an investigation that lasted throughout his presidency.
GROSS: So let me get back to the initial question. Since Clinton thought this was going to be a trifling nuisance, how did that affect how he handled the Whitewater investigation early on?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think early on, he deflected the question and said I've already handled that. That's been looked into. We lost money. It can't be serious, and on top of everything else, it was before I was president. So if anything, it doesn't have anything to do with any abuse of my presidential power because this is from long before I even ran for president. So he kind of dismissed it, and I think the problem for him when he dismissed it was that it became kind of a press swell. What is he hiding about it, and why is he dismissing it like this, and there became a big drum-beat cry that there should be an investigation to resolve all these questions, whatever the questions were.
GROSS: You write Hillary Clinton wanted Bill Clinton to fight the idea of a special prosecutor, and in retrospect, Bill Clinton agreed. Years later, he agreed.
Mr. BRANCH: He said that was the biggest mistake of his whole presidency was not listening to Hillary. The special counsel statute had lapsed, and the only way the initial Whitewater special counsel could be established at the end of 1993, right when we were beginning our project, was for him to request a special prosecutor. And there was a great hue and cry for him to do that. In fact, he said he couldn't hold a news conference without all the questions being about that: What are you hiding in Whitewater? Why don't you want a special prosecutor?
Hillary said: You don't want a special prosecutor because you will be weakening the presidency and the checks and balances in the constitutional system. These allegations have nothing to do with your presidential powers. They were before you were president. If you set up a special prosecutor, you will be helpless eventually even to run the executive branch of the government because as long as there's a special prosecutor, you can't supervise the FBI and the Justice Department. And you will be making it easier to initiate bogus investigations of future presidents. It will destabilize the Constitution.
So she felt he had a duty to resist that, but the hue and cry was so great he said look, we don't have anything to hide. Let's just do it and get it over with. But then, of course, once he established it in 1993, it ran on longer than Watergate and previous scandals and even World War II put together, even though it turned out to be based on nothing.
GROSS: And it ended up morphing into the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
Mr. BRANCH: Yes.
GROSS: Bill Clinton seemed to think, if I'm reading your book correctly, that Whitewater was a good story for his Republican opponents because it was complicated, because it was hard to understand, because the allegations are a little murky. No one could quite wrap their brains around it, but it looked bad. It's like, well, he did something, we don't really understand what, but he did something bad.
Mr. BRANCH: Exactly. But he also said that it was useful to his Republican opponents because as long as they could keep Whitewater alive and the focus on Whitewater, they avoided his political agenda and what he was trying to do across the board, from Bosnia to reducing the deficit or creating jobs or NAFTA or health care or anything. He felt that they wanted to keep the focus on personal matters and diversions because they could not compete with him as well on matters of policy as they could on matters of scandal.
GROSS: And then things just got worse from there. Then there's the Paula Jones allegations, and again, he had to decide whether constitutionally, this was a legitimate suit against a sitting president and whether he should resist it on those grounds, whether he should - why don't you talk about the questions that he had to resolve in sort of in figuring out how to go forward, yeah.
Mr. BRANCH: The Paula Jones case developed in the middle of Whitewater, once it lost steam, the allegations that he had harassed Paula Jones back when he was governor - and in many respects, it's like Whitewater in the sense that it's pre-presidential conduct and therefore can't really be related to a misuse of presidential power. But the courts decided that Paula Jones would be able to go forward with her suit, which was ultimately dismissed. But they decided to go forward anyway.
And the reason it was important was that it gave her lawyers power to take sworn testimony from Clinton on anything, including his sex life, which of course in many respects was the whole purpose. It was certainly the purpose of the news about it, and Monica Lewinsky grew out of that.
Hillary was upset about that, too, more than him, also on constitutional grounds. And she said the he had a duty to fight these allegations, not to put it off forever but to put it off while he was in the White House, that if you established the principle that sitting presidents could be sued over matters that preceded their presidency in private lawsuits, willy-nilly, and be subject to discovery and everything else, that it would weaken the presidency. And so she felt that that was wrong.
GROSS: Did he follow her advice?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, he tried to. He ordered his people to resist and argue for postponement. His point was that he felt that he had a duty to do that for slightly different reasoning. He felt that it was his job to be getting up every day and being president all day and that every moment he spent on Paula Jones was a detraction from what he owed the American people. So he tried to avoid it, but the Supreme Court ruled that the case could go forward. And then of course he had to comply with that and give those depositions, which is where the Monica Lewinsky case arose.
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. His new book, "The Clinton Tapes," is based on the secret oral histories he recorded with President Clinton. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch. He wrote a series of books about Martin Luther King. Now he has a new book called "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." This book is based on the oral histories he conducted in secret with President Clinton throughout Clinton's presidency.
You write that in 1994, after the Republicans swept Congress in the so-called Republican revolution and after some of the scandals against him started to break, that it was really taking a toll on him. And you say it was scary to see him slip in and out of sudden trances as though hypnotized or suffering from narcolepsy. Can you elaborate on what his mood seemed to be?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, you never knew what his mood was going to be, but after those election losses, you could really see the toll that the presidency was taking on him, because a couple of sessions, his eyes literally would roll back under his lids while he was talking, and it looked like he was asleep. And I would ask him if he was okay, and he would start awake but keep talking. His mind would never stop working, but he was clearly out on his feet, and he was also upset. He felt the Deficit Reduction Act and the Budget Reconciliation Act, which barely passed, had put the country on a good road to economic recovery and to eliminate the deficit, and his sour reward for that was to lose both houses of Congress.
So he was quite bitter, he was - at least for a few sessions. And we had some contentious ones because all of the sudden, he started asking me what I thought he ought to do, like he had lost his confidence. Should he fire the CIA director? Should he do this, that or the other, and it was very tense. He wanted - he proposed a middle-class bill of rights, saying if these elections prove that the American people want to be pandered to and have somebody just tell them we're going to cut taxes all the time, and you'll feel good whether it's good or not, I'll do it. I'll give them a middle-class bill of rights. What do you think of that?
I think that he knew it was wrong, but he was trying to force me to say so, so he could challenge. You know, by God, that's what they want. I'm going to do it. And I told him I didn't think the middle-class bill of rights made much sense, that a bill of rights was fundamental for everybody. That's what made it a bill of rights, and it wasn't for one social class, and even if it was, it wouldn't be a string of tax cuts. And he got mad at me and said well, that's what they want.
So that was a very tense session. But the next session, it was forgotten, and so was the middle-class bill of rights. And pretty soon, a couple of sessions later, he had kind of recovered his balance and said, you know, maybe I can make this work as a president who still has a strong agenda but is dealing with an adverse Republican Congress.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that Clinton saw the scandals as, in part, a way of diverting him from his presidency and from trying to forward his ambitions and the Democratic Party's ambitions, and you felt the same about Waco, Texas. You say that after it was discovered that the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was from an American, Clinton's Republican opponents decided that the real issue was Waco, Texas. And they crusaded to extend the investigations of the FBI raid into Texas. And that's when a leader of the NRA called the federal agents jack-booted government thugs. The president was accused of sanctioned murder. So he saw the investigation into what the FBI did in Waco as a diversion from what happened in Oklahoma City? Why would they want to - why would the Republicans want to divert attention from Oklahoma City?
Mr. BRANCH: Because Oklahoma City turned out to be not a foreign terrorist but a home-grown, corn-fed right-winger who blew up the Oklahoma City government and mangled children and women and innocent people because he saw it as the symbol of the federal government. He was an anti-government zealot who believed the federal government needed to be destroyed, and he did it on the anniversary of the Waco events two years earlier, when there was the raid down in Waco, Texas, and the compound was set on first.
This is a truly - almost an Orwellian moment because after the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton said logically there should be hearings into the anti-government extremism that could restore some balance as to what government could and could not do. Because here was a Christian zealot who that felt - and also a white supremacist zealot who believed that the federal government was forcing integration and government programs on the American people and that it was justified to kill and to set bombs at the federal building and blow up all the bureaucrats inside. Well, logically, you have hearings on that kind of extremism.
Instead, because the Republicans were so invested in just the opposite, that government was the danger itself, they revived the hearings from two years earlier on whether or not the federal government was inherently murderers in Waco. And there were no hearings, really, on the dangers of anti-government zealotry or on Timothy McVeigh or what his motives were. It was totally ignored and literally turned upside down. The danger here is not people who are against the government, but the danger is the government itself, and those hearings persisted. And he complained both about the fact, that unspoken mantra that the essence of our politics is to stop an inherently evil government, continued right through and despite the fact that you had this vivid evidence with 168 bodies out of the wreckage in Oklahoma City that extremists in the opposite direction were literally a mortal threat to the United States.
If the premise instead is that government is an inherently dangerous force and just needs to be tackled to the floor, then you can't even begin your agenda. So yes, he saw it as a way of forestalling his entire agenda.
GROSS: Taylor Branch will be back in the second half of the show to talk more about his new book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Taylor Branch.
His new book is based on the secret oral histories he recorded with President Clinton during his eight years on the White House. After each session on the way home to Baltimore, Branch recorded his impression of what Clinton had said. Branch is sharing what he learned during those sessions in his new book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." Branch is best known for his three volume biography of Martin Luther King.
What was your reaction when Monica Lewinsky story broke and what was the way that President Clinton talked with you about that early on? Did he deny everything to you?
Mr. BRANCH: We didn't talk about it very much. I - in these tapes, first of all we were - we were told not to discuss things subject to the special prosecutor on the tapes, very much, because his lawyers might have to listen to the tapes and disclose what came off of there, about matters if - if they were so pinning. So, we were pretty reticent about it. We didn't talk very much. He talked some off of the tapes, basically, saying it wasn't true. Of course, all of that change after he admitted it later on.
GROSS: Did you feel betrayed during this?
Mr. BRANCH: No.
GROSS: No. Why not?
Mr. BRANCH: I didn't feel betrayed as a person. My job as a person, I was there, the only access, the reason that I had any access to him at all, was because he and I were together pursuing this project to - to create a historical record and he was seeing that through in thick and thin and - and he was doing it. As a citizen, when Monica Lewinsky came out or when he admitted that it was true, I did feel betrayed, but not so much personally, but as a citizen because I thought he had come so close and going to - to proving that the long record of his presidency really was an empty diversion from things that mattered and would matter to our children and grandchildren about the state of public affairs, our death, our - our state of peace in the world. And that these fraudulent personal agenda he had come to the brink of showing - of exposing it as fraudulent, and then he let them off the hook with Monica Lewinsky.
It was - it was not an abusive of presidential power. It still had all of the defaults and defects that - that Hillary felt about and it was bad for the country. But nevertheless none of that mattered anymore because he had been caught in something that he cannot defend. And - and it was almost as those all the charges of personal scandal were - were justified by the fact that this -in this one instance, they were proved right. And that we had - we had one very painful conservation about that, where I said you were so close and - and you bailed them out and he said he just cracked in.
We didn't have much conversation about it but he said, right out loud, I was feeling sorry for myself at the time - meaning that he thought he was doing a good job as president, and he had huge, high approval ratings with the public at large - that stayed high actually. But nevertheless, with the interpretive classes and the press, it was just one thing after another that he didn't believe anything and that he was smashed in scandal and that he didn't even deserve to be president. So, he felt - he said he was feeling sorry for himself.
GROSS: Now, you - you write that years after you recorded these tapes, you went back to see - what was he telling you then? What was going in his mind then? So, when you look back what did you find?
Mr. BRANCH: I never really followed the Starr reports account of his various encounters with Monica Lewinsky, I mean, until later. And I went back through both of them. There was a very odd and furtive thing. It started during the government shutdown in 1995, which again is that period when he was upset and - and as he later told me going back it - it substantiated to some degree what he said that the affair occurred during the period when he was feeling sorry for himself twice.
And it was an odd affair. I didn't really realize that it started at the end of 1995 and then he broke it off early in 1996. In 1995, during the government shutdowns is when he was - he was feeling sorry for himself that the Republicans were shutting down the government right when Clinton was succeeding with his political agenda.
GROSS: They were shutting down the government because of the stand-off on the budget?
Mr. BRANCH: Because of a standoff on the budget. And - and by the end of that he said he was proud of him. He was beating them on the politics and - and proving that the American people do care about the government. After all the government is what the - the American Revolution was fought to establish. And it established - established to pursue the purposes that are in the Constitution and those are legitimate. And to - to be blindly against the government is going to get you in political trouble, he felt.
But the Lewinsky thing started in the midst of all that when the government was shutdown and the Republicans were riding high against him and he was feeling sorry for himself. He broke off for a year, won re-election in 1996, thought that may finally laid to rest all these stuff and get rid of Whitewater and get rid of the various scandal diversions only to find out that a whole new round started in allegations over how he had financed the 1996, campaign and Al Gore and a Buddhist temple.
And were these legal contributions and were Chinese, was the Chinese government trying to buy nuclear secrets with campaign contributions and it morphed into what was called China Gate, all the way through the second term. And he felt sorry for himself again, saying that, you know, I'm never going to get over these things and just deal with politics. They can - they can revive them, Ad infinitum. And that's when he took up again with Monica Lewinsky in early 1997. And saw here for another few months now. I didn't know anything about this. I never laid eyes on Monica Lewinsky. I only found out about it in retrospect but the brief periods of - of his affair do coincide on - on the record of my tapes with two periods where he's feeling sorry for himself for whatever that's broke. I mean, he never said that his political troubles justified Monica Lewinsky or - or even explained it but it was the only explanation that he offered - that he was feeling sorry for himself and he just cracked.
GROSS: Did he see the impeachment as a new kind of tactic to de-legitimize the president? Did he think that the Republican Party was changing in the kinds of techniques it was using to oppose Democrats?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, he thought impeachment was a political process from start to finish. He did say that and he thought it was part of politics, which in an odd way is one reason that he was less upset, about the impeachment than Hillary was. Hillary…
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Mr. BRANCH: Hillary thought it was a constitutional imbalance that would - and a terrible precedent from her work in working on then Richard Nixon impeachment, which was about, you know, making war in secret or - or it was about using presidential powers illegitimately. The Clinton impeachment was about whether he had lied over a private affair. And she felt that - that it was going to injure the presidency. And there was one session, right during impeachment, where they're both talking to senators about impeachment and she was making stronger arguments than he was.
He was just saying because it's political, if they want to throw me out of office they can do it. But he didn't think they would and she thought it would be a tragedy if they did.
And I think they both said the impeachment and the time that we're taking on impeachment after all, remember Bill Clinton became the first president in our history, a two-term president to gain seats in Congress in his sixth year in 1998 and the Republicans lost and they lost seats and their impeachment strategy was repudiated at the polls but they impeachment him anyway. And he was saying they don't have any other agenda but impeachment will keep me off balance and keep me from trying to do things that want to do at least for a while. So he did think that it was nakedly political.
GROSS: Now after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, that Bill Clinton had to deal with retaliating against al-Qaida for attacks on two American embassies in Africa - in Kenya and Tanzania. So was this the first you heard about al-Qaida, and what was the president's reaction to al-Qaida then, before most Americans knew anything about al-Qaida?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I didn't really know because I had forgotten until I went back through my dictations on this period. But he talked about it. He talked about the airstrikes that he had ordered in the Sudan and in Afghanistan. And much to my surprise, he talked about attempts on his own life by Osama bin Laden's people in both Bangladesh and in Pakistan. So yes, this is something that he was dealing with...
GROSS: Were there attempts on his life or did the CIA just fear that there could be attempts on his life?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, no. They went - they had reports that there were going to be and they diverted it to the degree - to the extent of having him fly in a fake plane and having Air Force One be empty. And they had a specific safe house where there were supposed to surfaced to air missiles that they raided right before his plane landed in Pakistan. They didn't get the bin Laden people but these were pretty specific plots and he talked about them.
His discussions about Pakistan and the relations between Pakistanis in Kashmir and the Indians and the use of terrorists and their relationship with Osama bin Laden, is pretty naked and raw. And I, frankly, was more or less just absorbing a lot of this and I forgot a lot of it until I went back and went through my record of the sessions because I wasn't paying that much attention to Osama bin Laden. But I did write his name down and spelled it correctly, and put a lot of those stories in the book in place. Because I think, when people get to review them, they'll be able to see more in time what he was dealing with at the same time that impeachment was going.
GROSS: You know, he was warned by the CIA, not to go to India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, and he went to Pakistan anyway...
Mr. BRANCH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and he described some of the security that was needed. Why did he think that trip was important enough to risk his life and to defy the CIA?
Mr. BRANCH: Because he said the Indian subcontinent is one of the most dangerous places on Earth, that you've got two governments, India and Pakistan, both of which have - own large numbers of nuclear weapons and are relentlessly and historically hostile to one another and fought several wars over Kashmir, which is the disputed territory or province between them that is majority Muslim and more Pakistanis than Indians, but is administered and claimed by the State of India and both nations speak out loud about the possibility of going to nuclear war.
He said the highest duty of any American president is to prevent nuclear war anywhere in the world because it could literally threaten our existence. I think I quote him one time as saying, "This is a terrible time and I've got all this other stuff going on, not to mention the silly scandals. But if there was a chance that I could reduce tensions in Kashmir between - over Kashmir between Pakistan and India, I have to get on the plane tomorrow and go over there." I have to do it. So that's the reason that he went.
I think there was another session in there where he said that the Indian government and the Pakistani government are hurling insults, privately, through diplomatic - at one another, regularly. The Indians say that Pakistan is a small country and that if there were a nuclear exchange they would obliterate all of Pakistan and have three or 400 Indians left over and therefore, they would win. And the Pakistanis retort that India is flat plains and that they're nuclear weapons would waft clouds of nuclear dust all over India and kill them. Whereas, in hilly Pakistan a lot of Pakistanis could hide in caves and survive.
And Clinton, when he said this, his eyes widened and he said they really talk like that. These are people running governments who talk like that so it is a threat to the world and therefore, it is of paramount duty for those of us in government who have any influence on this to try to reduce tension in the Indian subcontinent. So that's why he went.
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. His new book "The Clinton Tapes" is based on the secret oral histories he recorded with President Clinton.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Taylor Branch. He's a historian who has written extensively about Martin Luther King. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "America in the King Years." Now he is writing a new book called "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President." And it's based on the many hours of oral history that he conducted with President Clinton while Clinton was in the White House.
Toward the end of the Clinton presidency, during the 2000 election, Clinton thought that the Republicans were - being very clever. That - now that Gore was the candidate, suddenly the Republicans were painting Clinton as being, that's like, you know, brilliant politician, who had character flaws but was, you know, really agile at politics. And Clinton thought that the Republicans were using both of these things as weapons against Gore. You know, Clinton was a brilliant politician, Gore isn't. Clinton had personal flaws that reflected badly on Gore.
Can - can you elaborate on - on Clinton's feelings about how the Republicans handled the 2000 election before - before it went to the Supreme Court, before it was contested?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, he loved this stuff. I'm not saying that he fussed about it or - or his feelings, to him, this is raw politics. He revelled in political calculations and never be begrudged them, even to his enemies. I think he loved - I think I say at one point that - I - he seemed to me to love politics so much that he welcomed talking even about his own defeats, because being - it gave him the chance to be close to them and close to the politics. He thought the Republicans were pretty smart in 2000, that he said all of a sudden they rehabilitated me. They've been saying that I'm a thief and liar all these years and diverting attention from - from my agenda and government.
But now that they are about to run against Gore, they rehabilitate me and say that I'm a bad guy, but I'm a genius and that Gore is hopeless. He said they - they called me Michael Jordon in politics. I can give a good speech and connect to people and that - and that Gore is the rest of the Chicago Bulls without Michael Jordan. So he - he enjoyed that. He would chortle over it. But at the same time he was perfectly serious about the strategy that they were pursuing in 2000. And he would analyze the various candidates on both sides: Gore and Gore's rival, Bill Bradley, and - and George Bush - George W. Bush and John McCain on the other side.
Very early in 2000, he said that his early impression was that McCain and George Bush were - were mirror candidates, that McCain was qualified to be president but had no idea how to run. And that George Bush had very shrewd instincts about how to campaign as a president but was unqualified to hold the office. And he would say things like that, pretty matter of factly, trying to go through his, you know - he was a constant political junkie.
GROSS: After the 2000 election, once the election was contested, as it was about to enter the Supreme Court, President Clinton told you that he thought the Supreme Court would do everything it could to help George W. Bush. What did he tell you about that?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, again, it's not that he predicted that they would do this, because he said right up front or somewhere in the conversation, I don't know how they will get hold of it, but because there were law suits down in Florida. He said if any of these ever reached the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court gets a chance to influence this election, I have no doubt that they will try to help George W. Bush for political reasons. And he said right out loud that -that Clarence Thomas owed his seat to - to Bush's father and that - that there would be personal motives in the Supreme - that they are all conservative majority justices and they - and that they wanted their successors and future colleagues to be conservatives too.
GROSS: Before this book was actually published, did you show the manuscript to Bill Clinton and asked for his approval? Was that part of your agreement with him?
Mr. BRANCH: No.
GROSS: And did you feel like your allegiance was - was more to him or more to history, and is there a difference between the two?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I agonized about that a lot. In course of the book, put a lot of it in the book. But ultimately, no, my in my allegiance is to history and to trying to preserve a record out of the conviction that our government really does matter. And that it matters to the citizens. And that running a people's government is a - is a vital subject and that whatever personal concerns and personal entertainments there are should enhance, rather than obliterate, the essential politics of it.
I didn't show him the manuscript, I showed him the proofs when the book was done. And if I were writing about my own mother, I would be nervous. It's hard to be written about that personally and I have no idea what all he thinks about it. But it was in time to catch a few errors. Actually I - I in the book referred to Jiang Zemin of the China as the premier of China. He said no, that's wrong, that's the president. And I'll - that's just an example. I won't go into the things that he said about the book or any of the particulars: some positive and some negative. But I didn't change anything that he asked me to change, if anything, for cosmetic reasons.
GROSS: Taylor Branch, thank you so much for talking with us. It's good to talk with you again.
Mr. BRANCH: Thank you, Terry. Nice to be here.
GROSS: Taylor Branch's new book is called "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President." Coming up we listen back to an interview with William Safire, who died yesterday at the age of 79. He was a speech writer for the President Nixon and a columnist for The New York Times where he wrote about politics and language. This is FRESH AIR.
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