Historian Wrestles With 'The Clinton Tapes' Taylor Branch's book, The Clinton Tapes, documents dozens of private interviews with the former president. Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins Branch to talk about the Clinton years, and stories heating up in political circles.
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Historian Wrestles With 'The Clinton Tapes'

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Historian Wrestles With 'The Clinton Tapes'

Historian Wrestles With 'The Clinton Tapes'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Representative Castle aims higher, Senator Ensign won't budge, and the 2016 Olympic Games go to:

Unidentified Announcer: Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Sorry, Chicago. It's Wednesday and time for another tall and tan and young and lovely visit with the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Where's the beef?

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Former Senator LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, NPR political editor Ken Rudin joins us for a round-up of all things political. And what a week: President Obama huddles up on Afghanistan, rumors point to a presidential run by General Petraeus, the new secretary of the Army's old congressional seat open in Upstate New York, and believe it or not, the Clinton administration kept a secret. Historian Taylor Branch recorded 79 long conversations with the president over his eight years. We'll spend most of this hour with him going over the Clinton tapes, but first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And as always, we begin with a trivia question.

RUDIN: Okay, well, yesterday, Mike Castle of Delaware announced his candidacy for the Senate. This is a seat that was once held by Joe Biden. Castle is a nine-term member of the House and a former governor. Name the current members of the Senate who also served as governor and representative, and you need to name all of them.

CONAN: So if you think you know all of the members, current members of the United States Senate who also served as members of the House of Representatives and as governors of their state, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And the winner, of course, gets a fabulous Political Junkie T-shirt.

RUDIN: Unbelievable.

CONAN: A no-prize. Anyway, Representative Castle, of course, the only representative from the state of Delaware.

RUDIN: Right. He's been elected - it's a state there is only one congressman member of the House from Delaware, so he's elected statewide. He's been elected statewide 12 times, nine as a House member, twice as governor and then once as lieutenant governor, going backwards. And so he is a centrist Republican, perhaps the only Republican who has a shot at taking Joe Biden - Joe Biden's former Senate seat. Now it's held by Ted Kaufman, who was appointed, and he's - Ted Kaufman's a long-time friend of Joe Biden, and Ted Kaufman's going to leave the seat just in time for 2012, when Beau Biden, Joe's son and the state attorney general, is likely to run against Mike Castle for the seat.

CONAN: And he'll be coming back from the military and from…

RUDIN: He's back. He's back safely. He was with the Army National Guard, a year tour in Iraq, and on my Political Junkie Web site, I had a little poll…

CONAN: There's a Web site?

RUDIN: There is. Oh yeah, it's a blog.

CONAN: How about that?

RUDIN: Yeah, it's the Political Junkie Web site. It's called Political Junkie, and on the site - yes - and on the site I had a little poll: Who do you think is going to win? Right now, 68 percent think that young Biden is going to win that state.

CONAN: It's a blue state.

RUDIN: It's a blue state.

CONAN: Blue Hens, after all.

RUDIN: And Mike Castle is probably the only Republican who has a shot.

CONAN: Mentioning the 2016 Olympic Games, both the first lady and then the president traveled to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago, which humiliatingly lost first.

RUDIN: Well, yes, although I think a lot of people spent more time criticizing Obama or blaming Obama, President and Mrs. Obama, for the loss, and I think that's kind of, you know, a little silly, but I guess it's blaming-Obama time, and we do that very well.

But look, perhaps it was a waste of a trip. I mean, we think about all the things that need to be done in Washington - I sound like a Republican here saying he shouldn't…

CONAN: He shouldn't go out gallivanting off to Europe.

RUDIN: But you know, with health care, you know, hanging by a thread and decisions about Afghanistan, the Copenhagen trip seemed to be a little misguided.

CONAN: Well, don't forget our trivia question this week centers around the state of Delaware. If you think you know the person who is currently in the U.S. Senate and has also served as governor and member of the House of Representatives from that state, give us a call. You have to name them all, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Since we last convened, Senator John Ensign of Nevada, who earlier this year confessed to an affair with a campaign staffer, the wife of one of his aides, made it clear that, well, he was not planning to resign. He's going to hold onto his seat.

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): I said in the past I recommended him for jobs just like I've recommended a lot of people, but we absolutely did nothing except for comply exactly with what the ethics laws and the ethics rules of the Senate state. We were very careful in everything that we did, and you can see our statements on that.

CONAN: Senator Ensign, responding to a long article in the New York Times that seemed to, well, categorize what might have been ethical violations.

RUDIN: Right. We're not talking about the sex, although we can if you like.

CONAN: Okay.

RUDIN: And you can call me on my personal line to talk about that, if you like. But also, more importantly, it seems like Senator Ensign lobbied to have his - the husband of the woman he was sleeping with, his long-time aide, Douglas Hampton - become a lobbyist. And also that Senator Ensign apparently talked to government agencies to get Doug Hampton clients, and that is a misuse of his office. And if that's true, and if it actually did happen, that is a serious violation, and the Senate Ethics Committee is looking into it.

CONAN: And meanwhile, the House of Representatives is currently voting on a resolution to remove Charlie Rangel of New York as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

RUDIN: Well, now here's a little difference here. The Republicans are not standing up for John Ensign. They've been very quiet. Mitch McConnell was asked about John Ensign. He says well, let's just see what happens.

The Democrats are standing by Charlie Rangel for several reasons. One of them is that health care is a big issue, and the Ways and Means Committee is a big player in the health-care issue. Two, if Charlie Rangel is removed as Ways and Means Committee chairman, Pete Stark of California, who's a real, far-out-there liberal - in some ways I'm looking at it…

CONAN: Again you're talking like a Republican.

RUDIN: I'm sorry - would be chairman. And three, I think most importantly, perhaps, is that there's a feeling that you don't want to upset the Congressional Black Caucus, and Charlie Rangel - first elected in 1970, defeating Adam Clayton Powell by the way - is a key member there.

And look, until something is proven, something is proven in court or at least by the ethics committee, they don't want to move Rangel out of his seat.

CONAN: One more question. Then we'll get to some people who think they know the answer to our trivia question, and that involves New York's 23rd Congressional District. The former holder of that seat, now the secretary of Army, so it's an open seat.

RUDIN: It is an open seat, and more importantly, it has never elected a Democrat in its history. But here's the problem, of course, with John McHugh -who was a congressman up there for a bunch of times, became Army secretary, and now it's an open seat - but you have a Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who is in a long-time…

CONAN: Easy for you to say.

RUDIN: She's a long-time state assemblywoman who is pretty moderate on some issues, including abortion, and the conservatives are not only upset about that, but they've endorsed - a lot of conservatives are backing a Conservative Party candidate named Doug Hoffman, who's been backed by Fred Thompson, Gary Bauer, the Club for Growth, the American Conservative Union.

So if there is a split in Republican ranks, and there could be, it could help the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens. But again, we still have some time to go. But right now, Bill Owens is polling in, like, double digits.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the line, and our trivia question again: Name all of the current members of the United States Senate who also served as governors of their state and in the House of Representatives, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We'll start with Marvin(ph), Marvin calling us from St. Louis.

MARVIN (Caller): Hi. The only one I can think of is Christopher Bond of Missouri.

CONAN: Kitt Bond, better known as.

RUDIN: Well, Kitt Bond - interesting. Kitt Bond, of course, did run for Congress, but he lost. He did run for governor, and he was governor, but in 1968, as you well remember, he ran as the Republican nominee for Congress in a congressional seat, but he lost. So he did serve as governor and senator but not House of Representatives.

CONAN: So two bases, but not the triple there, Marvin.

MARVIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Ken, Ken with us from St. Paul.

KEN (Caller): Yes, I am guessing George Voinovich of Ohio.

CONAN: And he of course did serve - he is currently in the Senate, and did serve as governor.

RUDIN: But he never ran for the House.

KEN: Ah, okay.

CONAN: Nice try, Ken. Let's go next to - this is Steve, Steve with us from West Monroe in New York.

STEVE (Caller): My response is N-O-N-E.

CONAN: None of the above, that there are no members of the U.S. Senate…

RUDIN: Oh, I thought he was guessing Sam Nunn. So no, there actually really are answers here.

CONAN: But I think…

STEVE: Charlie Rangel, I'll be happy to talk about that guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see, go next to - this is Dylan, Dylan with us from Wilmington, Delaware.

DILLON (Caller): Tom Carper and Haley Barbour.

CONAN: Tom Carper of Delaware and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

RUDIN: Well, Haley Barbour did run for - he is governor and did run for the Senate, lost to John Stennis in 1982, but he never ran for the House. So Haley Barbour is not a correct answer.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to Steve, Steve with us from Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

STEVE (Caller): I think the only one is Tom Carper of Delaware.

CONAN: Ah, you didn't respond when we last said Tom Carper, Ken.

RUDIN: Well, I will give you - you will not be the correct answer because there's more than one answer. Tom Carper is one of the people I'm looking for, but I need everybody.

CONAN: Oh, you have to go for two there, Steve, at least. Well, thanks very much, and let's go next then to - this is Mark(ph) and Mark with us from Charlotte.

MARK (Caller): Hey.

CONAN: Go ahead, Mark.

MARK: Hey, okay. The two answers are Tom Carper of Delaware and Judd Gregg from New Hampshire.

RUDIN: And that is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, Mark.

MARK: Yay.

CONAN: Congratulations. You're the winner of a fabulous no-prize T-shirt. We'll put you on hold and get your particulars, and the only promise you have to make in return is to take a digital picture of yourself and email it to us so we can put it on our wall of shame.

MARK: I will do that. Thanks. I love your show.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if I can hit the right button for a change. All right, there we go. So Ken, as we continue on, there have been a number of meetings in the White House to try to determine Afghan policy, including a big meeting yesterday with members of the Senate and House from both parties.

RUDIN: Well, I'd like to wish the Afghanistan War a happy birthday. Today is eight years since the United States has been involved in the war, one of the longest wars in history, and we're still searching for a policy.

As President Obama has said, he is not going to reduce the number of troops that are there, but at the same time, he is not committing to sending in much more troops, as apparently General Stanley McChrystal has suggested over the - and he was rebuked by Jim Jones. But it seems like the military and the Republicans want more troops. And at his meeting yesterday with members of Congress, John McCain said to the president that it's urgency; that we can't fool around, there's a serious urgency to it. And of course, President Obama said look, I'm aware of this, and I'm just doing the best I can. But right now, there is really no understanding of what's going to be.

CONAN: He said there has to be alternatives to either doubling down or going out altogether. There has to be something in the middle. So we're expecting something, as he says, that may not make everybody happy.

RUDIN: And that sounds vintage Obama because Obama with health care, with almost everything, it's always been looking for that consolidation in the middle of some kind of a thing that will satisfy everybody, but ultimately, it often satisfies no one.

CONAN: It's Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us. Up next, Taylor Branch will join us. He spent many hours in secret sessions with President Bill Clinton and a tape recorder, during moments of crisis and scandal, and in more subdued moments, as well.

It's a revealing look at the country's 42nd president and several other world leaders, as well. Yeah, Boris Yeltsin figures prominently in it. You'll hear more about it in a moment.

If you'd like to talk with Taylor Branch about the history of the Clinton administration and all of the politics, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Political Junkie day on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: For eight years, usually late at night, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch drove down from Baltimore to sit with his old friend Bill Clinton in the White House and record a series of secret interviews, 79 in all.

The tapes were intended for posterity. They've already been the source for one book, President Clinton's memoirs. But on the way home to Baltimore, Branch recorded another set of tapes, where he tried to recall everything that he and the president talked about. And now those tapes form the basis of Branch's new book, that rambles from health care to Whitewater, impeachment, Kosovo, Haiti, Rwanda, welfare reform, Boris Yeltsin's drinking habits and Sophia Loren's cleavage. Oh, and politics, politics, politics - from one of the masters of the art.

If you'd like to talk with Taylor Branch about his conversations with Bill Clinton, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Of course, political junkie Ken Rudin stays with us. Taylor Branch joins us here in Studio 3A. His new book is called "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President," and Taylor Branch, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Author, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President"): Thank you, nice to be back.

CONAN: And how did you get this gig?

Mr. BRANCH: It came out of the blue. I mean, I had known him 20 years earlier, when we were kids in Texas working on the McGovern campaign. The shellacking we took there by better than 30 points bonded us a little bit, but it wasn't the kind of bonding you wanted to remember.

Then I went off into journalism; he stayed in politics, and he initiated this. He called, or his office called, out of the blue for me when he was president-elect, and in the middle of a huge crowd of people, somebody I hadn't seen for 20 years, says: I've got one question to ask you. What kind of records do you think are being kept now, because I want the kind of records that you're working with on your King material.

He had read - he said he read "Parting the Waters" and he read the footnotes and that I was getting a lot of material out of presidential libraries and that he was afraid that the material wouldn't be good. And this is right over the heart for me, because of the plate(ph), because I think we're not recording good materials and that our history is not particularly good.

And so I encouraged him, and he wasn't going to record his phone conversations, and this oral history is the next best thing we could hit on.

CONAN: It was interesting. One of the things you kept pressing him on was find somebody who's attending your domestic and your international meetings, and take notes. Just take notes. And everybody who attended those meetings thought that somehow this was beneath them.

Mr. BRANCH: It was beneath them, and they were also threatened by it. They were afraid it would be used against them, what they said. So I found an extraordinary amount of resistance to keeping notes, to the point that in one conversation, I had - not from John Podesta, but he was the keeper of the records, and he said he looked - I asked him how the records were, and he said, well, I have a lot of records, but if you're talking about what really happened, that's not what the records are about.

CONAN: And of course, it's impossible to believe that any records kept during the Clinton administration would have been subpoenaed or anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRANCH: Well, of course, that's what he was worried about, which is why he wanted to keep this oral history secret. Paradoxically, the whole purpose of it was to open it up for the future so that people could get some sort of unfiltered look, in the moment, of how a president felt that he was wrestling with all these issues. But in order to do that, we had to keep it secret, because we knew if it got out that a hue and cry would grow up that, you know, the answers to Whitewater and whether or not - and the Vince Foster suicide would all be in these tapes, and that would kill the project.

So we did keep it secret for eight years, and I'm proud of that.

CONAN: And that's something to be proud of. For a while, the president always kept the tapes, except for one instance. But the president, you insisted, be in charge of these tapes - and for a while kept them in his sock drawer?

Mr. BRANCH: I didn't know that. Not until the second term did he show me, when this thing had been going on. He trusted me enough to show me where to put them away, and that - the two boxes I had given him were behind his socks in a drawer in the little walk-in closet right next to the bedroom.

So for the last year or two, I put them away, and he wanted me to check and make sure that they were all both there and both intact, and they were.

CONAN: We're talking with Taylor Branch about his new book, "The Clinton Tapes." And I wanted to ask you, there's plenty of politics in these books. The president speaks engagingly many, many times. There's something he said about David Bonior, the Democrat from Michigan - this is in the NAFTA debate - that strikes me as just so interesting, given the situation that we face these days.

He felt that David Bonior, long-time labor supporter, was going to vote against him on NAFTA, but then he went on to say something very interesting.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, he said that David Bonior was the kind of person that would fight you tooth and nail on NAFTA, on the merits, but then turn around and say where can I work with you tomorrow? And for Clinton, that was the kind of politician that he really relished working with.

CONAN: He also said he never begrudged the opposition - the Republicans - he never begrudged anything they did or said against him. Any way you can get a vote, fair or foul, was fine with him.

Mr. BRANCH: That's part of survival. He felt the same way about foreign leaders, you know, because he was very patient with Boris Yeltsin, for example, was under tremendous pressure from politicians in Russia who wanted to reconstitute the empire. And if Yeltsin didn't cuss the United States, he couldn't survive. And so Clinton would say Boris, I understand why you have to cuss me, and you are facing the most difficult challenge of any foreign leader I know, which is to build free institutions on the carcass of the Soviet Union.

CONAN: He was also understanding of Yeltsin deciding to go out for a pizza late at night.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, yes, actually that story - which is of Yeltsin in his underpants trying to get a pizza at two o'clock in the morning - was actually something that Clinton said in the context of Yeltsin's doing this impossible task, and his alcoholism is much more serious than the popular image just of jolly old Boris. And he told this story, and others, at the Blair House by way of illustration, that when you're the leader of the United States with these responsibilities, you're trying to help somebody work the impossible, but then you've got these private secrets and liabilities that you can't really talk about that make it even harder.

CONAN: There's other insights into so many other foreign leaders. The one meeting that sticks out in my mind, he's meeting with the Chinese leader Hu Jintao, and the Chinese leader starts reading him a speech, and the president listens politely for a while, and then says wait a minute and then tries to charm him, and says his peace and let's get down to business and blah, blah, blah. And after he finishes, the Chinese president proceeds to go ahead and finish reading the speech.

Mr. BRANCH: That's true. That was Jiang Zemin.

CONAN: Oh, excuse.

Mr. BRANCH: Jiang Zemin. Actually, at one point, Clinton said, which surprised me, that Jiang Zemin was one of his biggest failures in foreign policy because he prided himself on the ability of making personal contact. He believed that a political leader's job was to have the right analysis and all the wonk stuff about what you needed to do, but that it was worthless unless you made some sort of personal connection with somebody, and Jiang Zemin frustrated him. He felt that he never made a connection with him at all, and Jiang Zemin just looked at him and said basically the United States will fade away in a few years, and we may be coming over there, telling you to make the U.S. Constitution more like China's. And that it was a kind of a big wall of - impenetrable wall with him.


RUDIN: Taylor, what is the fine line between being an historian and a friend? In other words - or an advocate. When you listened to him, and you talked to him, and you go back, and you record your observations, and then you write your book, are there things that you might have, if you just didn't know him or didn't have personal affection for him, that you might have said that you didn't say? I mean, is it fair to say that there are some things that you learned that you wish you hadn't learned and didn't talk about in your book?

Mr. BRANCH: I don't - there's nothing that I left out of the book to make him look better. I'm sure there are a lot of things that he wished I had left out of the book that I didn't. But the question of what the line is between a historian and a friend is hard. That's why I'm wrestling history, too.

The subtitle of the book, "Wrestling History with the President," with the president because what is my role? I saw it primarily as trying to get the most candid material that would not otherwise be on the record right out of his mind while he was remembering it. But it's not that simple because to him, rapport and how you talk, and he likes exchange, he feeds off of it; and if I just sit there like a bump on a log, he's going to lose interest. And what do I do when out of the blue, he says: Do you think I should fire the CIA director?

Is that going to affect the history project? So I am constantly off-balance not only because I don't know what he's going to ask me but because I don't know what's going to happen. And we can be having these sessions about Bosnia, and you know, a call will come in, do we have an air strike in Baghdad? And then Chelsea will come in with her homework.

So part of the purpose of this book is to show what I encountered, at least, in a raw form of what life is like in the White House.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest, Taylor Branch, his new book, "The Clinton Tapes," 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Marsh(ph) is on the line from Columbus.

MARSH (Caller): How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MARSH: Thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MARSH: I think I actually know Mr. Branch from summer camp in Atlanta, Georgia, but that's another conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay.

MARSH: But I would like to know, sort of what his sense of President Clinton is as a person, particularly with regard to integrity deep down in the center, I mean, where is he? Because sometimes, he seems like he's a got moral compass, it may be wavering, or is that a result of being in the position he was in?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, I don't know whether - what kind of moral compass you're speaking about, particularly - if you'd like to say. I came away from this -when I started it, I wasn't a huge, you know, devotee. We hadn't seen each other for 20 years. Over the course of this project - and I put this upfront in the book by the time it was over - I was struck by his idealism about public policy and, on the merits, his genuine love for politics and what people could accomplish. He thought that was the essence of patriotism.

As to his private matters or the Monica Lewinsky - which was profoundly disillusioning for me as - like everybody else, the only context I can put it into is that that's nowhere near the worse kind of philandering that's gone on in the White House, but it is a failure that's common to people in politics. And he felt - we had some searing conversations with it at the end - that it undermined any chance that he had to lift the country above what he saw as an undeserved period of cynicism about our politics that's been plaguing our political discourse for the last couple of decades.

CONAN: When you talked to him about, it he said to you, I cracked.

Mr. BRANCH: And that he felt sorry for himself and that self pity was his - the chief character fault that he had to worry about.

CONAN: I don't know if you've read some of the reviews of your book, but your critics say maybe you let him off the hook, maybe you should've pushed him a little harder there.

Mr. BRANCH: Yes. They wanted more of Monica Lewinsky. But I'll take the 4.7 unemployment and the peace operations all around the world.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Marsh.

MARSH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye, bye. Here's an email from Scott(ph) in Portland, Oregon. What was President Clinton's reaction and response to the USS Cole and the embassy bombings in Africa? Was he afraid to go to war?

Mr. BRANCH: No. He had several wars. He had lots of wars. He had wars in Bosnia, he had a war in Haiti, he had a war in Kosovo…

CONAN: Somalia at the beginning, I'm not sure that qualified as a war.

Mr. BRANCH: No, not really. And, of course, he fired cruise missiles not only into Sudan but also into Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden. It didn't kill him. But, no, I don't think he was afraid of that kind of war. But he's not going to invade Yemen because of the USS Cole. He talked a good bit about Osama bin Laden. I was surprised.

On a trip to South Asia toward the end of his administration, he even said he wasn't sure. I hope I'm with you next time because the CIA does not want me to go to Pakistan or - nor to Bangladesh. And that there were active plots by bin Laden against him and that they tried to - with shoulder-fired missiles - to shoot down Air Force One, and they actually flew a dummy Air Force One into land. And so, he was quite nervous about that and talked a good bit about it.

The first time he mentioned bin Laden, he said, believe it or not, Taylor, Osama bin Laden is a lot like the fictional villains in the old James Bond novels. He is a non - an extra-state villain with operatives in many countries including our own. So, yes, he talked about it a lot, but going to war with Osama bin Laden is easy to say, but hard to do.

CONAN: We're talking with Taylor Branch about his new book "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin also with us. Ken?

RUDIN: Taylor, also - obviously, President Clinton is always aware of his role in history. And you could see him - even before reading your book - you could see him chomping at the bit during the 2000 presidential campaign when Al Gore, who was trying to be Clinton's successor but not follow in Clinton's footsteps, didn't know how to handle President Clinton.

Mr. BRANCH: Yeah. Well, his relationship with Al Gore - you know, this is new for me now. Since the book has come out, people have been tracking, like, his relationship with Chelsea or with Bob Dole or - but with Al Gore, horizontally, is quite interesting because there are times when he admires him. There are times when Al Gore shows a heck of a lot more sense of humor in private than I saw in public. But then at the end, as you said, there's one episode where he recounts, what he called, a two-hour donnybrook with Al Gore over who was responsible for losing the 2000 election. That was not on my list of questions to ask him because it had been a secret meeting. And he just said, I want to put this on the record. There were many things like that over the years, and he went back and forth.

And to his credit, he gave Al Gore's side of the argument pretty well too. Al said that in his focus groups that Clinton was an albatross around his neck no matter how he played it. He couldn't - if he tried to escape it, he was attacked for that. If he tried to run on the record, he was dragged down by the scandal. And it went back and forth until finally, Clinton said, well, Al, Hillary had a heck of a lot more reason to resent me over Monica Lewinsky than you did, and she won in New York by running unabashedly on our record and trusting that people could separate the personal from the political. And you should've done that too. So, it went back and forth and was quite raw. And I hope and trust that they've kind of gotten over it. But it was a good thing to have on the record. People really do talk to them - to each other that way.

CONAN: Email question from Steve(ph) in Hollywood, Florida. There is a famous clip of Yeltsin and Clinton together at a news conference where Clinton could not stop laughing. Do you know what Yeltsin said to him to make him laugh so hard?

Mr. BRANCH: Yes. Yeltsin was drunk. That's in the book. Clinton says really drunk. And he was teasing reporters and he was saying, I know you think this may be a disaster, but I'm here to tell you that you're a disaster. Your coverage is a disaster. And Clinton was laughing, saying, make sure that you attribute that to him and not to me because he had famously frosty relations with a lot of the reporters. So he was laughing because basically, because Boris Yeltsin was saying to the press what Clinton longed to say but knew better.

CONAN: And this after, as you mentioned, Clinton's famously frosty relations with the press, he consistently expresses disappointment not just with everybody, including the New York Times, the Washington Post - publications that he had admired greatly.

Mr. BRANCH: It might - you know, he admired the Times and the Post greatly in a special sense that I shared, because as both as Southerners who grew up in the South in the civil rights movement, that was a great glory period for press coverage. What Claude Sitton and other reporters did in covering the civil rights movement, we thought rescued our region of the country from terror and poverty and segregation and everything else. And so both of us idolized the New York Times, and it was a great source of frustration to him that they were carrying Whitewater and Chinagate and Travelgate and the various incarnations of scandals that all came to naught except that they finally landed at the doorstep of Lewinsky.

CONAN: The special prosecutor's office. We've posted an excerpt from Taylor Branch's book on our Web site. You can read about the first of his 79 conversations with the president and the unspoken ground rules they agreed upon. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. More about what's in the Clinton tapes in a moment. Taylor Branch is with us and our Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now, we continue with the Political Junkie. We're talking with Ken Rudin, of course, famous for his Political Junkie blog at npr.org. He records his own secret conversations with Ron Elving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You can download those as well on the It's All Politics podcast at our Web site too. But those are not the tapes we're focusing on today. We're talking about the Clinton tapes. Taylor Branch compiled hours of his memories of his conversations during the president's years in the White House into his book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." If you'd like to talk with Taylor Branch about his conversations with Bill Clinton: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can go back to another phone call. And let's go to - this is Delbert(ph). Delbert with us from Columbus. Delbert, you there?


CONAN: Delbert, you're on the air. You have to listen on the phone.

DELBERT: Okay. I was going to ask about Bill - the situation between Bill Clinton and Al Gore, because I was under the impression that Al Gore may could have won the election if he had of stuck with Clinton, because I thought to me, myself, I thought, Clinton was the most popular man in America at the time and it was a fatal decision for Al Gore to turn his back on Clinton, but somebody else seemed to have asked that question.

And someone asked - Bill Clinton's presidency, I thought, was one of the greatest times America had. But after his presidency, people still had - seemed to have had - a lot on the left had a great dislike for Mr. Clinton. And I'll leave it there.

CONAN: All right, Delbert. Thank you.

Mr. BRANCH: He's still a polarizing figure in a polarized political climate. And you represent one stubborn fact that his approval ratings stayed pretty high, more or less consistently, through - right even through impeachment. I mean, he's now the second president in the history of the United States to actually go through an impeachment trial, and his approval rating stayed high even through that. And yet he was polarizing and particularly polarizing for the people writing and talking about it.

CONAN: I was interested. The political master told you that he made a fundamental mistake of timing by not going to Republicans in - before the trial started and pinning them down.

Mr. BRANCH: Yes. Now, this is not a huge thing. I mean, he's just saying, as a small matter of tactics, that once the 1998 elections occurred and for the first time a sixth-year president actually gained seats in both the House and the Senate in a campaign in which the Republicans ran on impeachment and lost a mandate. And that's what they were saying the next day, that he should have sent his political operatives around to get - to lock in - to public positions, it was a mistake to be for impeachment.

The people who then - because he didn't do that, he said, they were free to vote for impeachment when they changed their minds and they started getting pressured by Republicans who said, look, we already paid our price at the polls. We got killed. We might as well impeach him anyway. And they - so he felt he made a tactical, a small tactical mistake.

CONAN: But a big point in my life - I spent six months covering that from the Judiciary Committee…

Mr. BRANCH: Oh, did you?

CONAN: …all the way through the vote on the floor and then the Senate trial. And I'd like those six months back, please.

Mr. BRANCH: I was surprised that he said that Richard Shelby was his conduit to Republican strategy, because he…

CONAN: That was not known at that time.

Mr. BRANCH: …he had always talked about Shelby as somebody who really didn't like him and yet Shelby was a prosecutor and felt that the case wasn't there and it wasn't going to happen, and for that reason kind of shared with Clinton a lot of a political strategy, what was going on behind the scenes, particularly the resentment of the House managers in the case that they presented. So there was a lot of behind-the-scenes that he described.

CONAN: Now, let's go to Glen(ph). Glen with us from Oakland.

GLEN (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Glen. You're on the air, go ahead.

GLEN: Hi. Thank you. My question is this, NAFTA, in hindsight, has been shown to have been to the detriment of the vast majority of American workers. And I'm wondering, did Clinton, in any of these tapes, did he ever express any real doubts about pushing this thing through, did he - or was he actually really sincere about thinking that this would help people? Or was it just some kind of a corporate sellout, like the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act? I mean, did you get any sense of what his true thoughts on this…

CONAN: Glen, there are plenty of economists who will argue both sides of that issue. There is not consensus that NAFTA was a bad deal for Americans…

Mr. BRANCH: Certainly not (unintelligible)…

CONAN: Some American workers, yes.

GLEN: As you say, at least 50 percent of the people agreed that the…

CONAN: I'm not talking about the people. I'm talking about economists. But go ahead, let's get an answer.

Mr. BRANCH: Certainly, he never expressed any doubt about NAFTA. He said we've got to compete in a shrinking world. And these jobs are going to be put under competitive pressure whether we have NAFTA or not. And it's better to have NAFTA because it will open more foreign markets. So, no, he never shared that belief. He thought it created high-paying jobs and, of course, his presidency -under his presidency, the number of jobs did rise by over 20 million.

So he regretted and talked about some things that he felt that he didn't get in NAFTA and he wanted to go back and fix it. He said the same thing about the welfare bill. There were parts of the welfare bill that almost made him veto it. He vetoed it twice and only signed it the third time. You know, but these are hard political calculations and he was - never wavered that I saw him in his support for NAFTA.

CONAN: Glen, thank you. Ken?

RUDIN: First of all, you know, this is radio. I want people at home to know that Taylor Branch is wearing a gorgeous Beatles tie. And I don't think you'd know that on the radio. But Taylor…

Mr. BRANCH: From my daughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Which is - looks so good on radio.

When you look back and think of all these 79 meetings and everything, and I guess a lot of us thought of President Clinton as very smart and very flawed, do you come away with, like, sadness or regret? When you picture the whole Bill Clinton in his entirety, what picture are you left with?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, the only sadness I have is that the Bill Clinton that was so driven and relentlessly analyzing all of these matters for the benefit of the world, with this amazing brain, was not the Bill Clinton that most people dealt with in their daily politics, and that either a combination of our fault and his fault - we were caught up in scandals for most of that time. We're sitting here now with a trillion-dollar deficit and an economy where a lot of things are shut down and we have real problems in the world and we lack confidence that politics can do anything about it. He felt that it could and he couldn't ever quite get that message across. And I think we all share some of that responsibility, including him.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ed(ph), Ed calling us from Traverse City in Michigan.

ED (Caller): Yes. Good morning, sirs. Or good afternoon (unintelligible).

CONAN: Good afternoon. Yeah, it's okay.

ED: I just - my question was - I was wondering if you think that President Clinton kind of set a precedent with the terrorists in the Middle East. I was there at the time - for Somalia deal, I was stationed in North Africa - that set a precedent for them to come after us and attack us because they could see that the Somalia deal, when we backed out after we lost all our troops there, showed that we didn't have the belly for a real war in that area?

CONAN: Wasn't the only example that's been cited by some in the Arab world and some in the Middle East as saying the United States pulled out of Lebanon after - that, of course, during the Reagan administration - after the attack on the Marine barracks and then out of Somalia and, of course, the great example, Vietnam, but Taylor Branch.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, Somalia was quite difficult. And, actually, that was going on at our first session, October of '93. He was actually sitting there fielding calls from senators because the Senate then wanted him to withdraw immediately. There was a McCain amendment to withdraw all soldiers immediately and he was trying to get it postponed for six months. And one of the first questions I had was should I record these phone calls that he's having with these senators, and I decided to do it.

ED: Uh-huh.

Mr. BRANCH: So it's one of many examples where tactical retreat can be seen as encouraging an enemy.

ED: Well, I can honestly say from being there firsthand that we were just waiting for him to drop the hammer and we were going to go to it with all we had because, you know, to lose our soldiers like that and sort of retreat was just, at the time, it was very difficult as a troop, to ask a soldier to do that.

Mr. BRANCH: Oh, I can certainly understand. And, of course, that's your job, too, but I can also understand that beyond that you've got personal feelings because you've lost friends.

ED: Yes, that's true. Anyway, hey, thank you for your time, sir.

Mr. BRANCH: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Ed.

Here's an email that we have from Jay(ph) in Philadelphia. I'm wondering what the mood was in the Clinton White House during the health care debate. Was there the same degree of optimism behind the scenes as was put forward? And what impact did it have on the president after the fight was lost? Good questions.

Mr. BRANCH: Very good questions. Well, of course, it was a different strategy at the beginning. They retreated and brought a very, very complex health care bill to the floor all at once. And President Obama has taken pretty much the opposite tack.

President Clinton, when it started going down, he got discouraged pretty quickly. He said complexity gives the advantage to the attacker and this is a complex issue. There are reasons it hadn't been done in 60 years. He felt that he submitted health care too soon after the budget act of 1993, so that it got lumped together as big - another big tax, big government thing and cost him both houses of Congress, when, in fact, he thinks the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 really put us on a path not only for prosperity and jobs but to eliminate the deficit. But health care, he put them too close together. But he was forever second-guessing the strategy about health care. But the main thing is he felt that he did it too soon and that there were a lot of tactical mistakes in the way he presented it.

CONAN: One of the things we tend to forget was how long and protracted that fight was. You think about it as, well, not over a couple of months, it went on a lot longer than that.

Mr. BRANCH: It consumed most of 1994, yes.

CONAN: We're talking with Taylor Branch about his book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." He recorded 79 secret conversations with Bill Clinton for posterity during the Clinton presidency and has written a book about his recollections of those conversations. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Jeff(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin: How does President Clinton explain his refusal to take action on the Rwandan genocide? And I just read that moment in the tapes when this first comes up and action does not occur to him.

Mr. BRANCH: No, it didn't occur to him. At that time, he was not apologetic for it. He later became very apologetic for it. He said at the time, that - he said it took us two years to assemble a coalition to do anything in Bosnia, which was on CNN every night. He said, Rwanda was not on CNN. And it occurred in seven weeks - they killed 700,000 people, largely without guns. That even if we had been - wanted to, there's no way we would've mobilized that quickly. Later, he felt regretful that we responded so slowly.

And he told stories of visiting Rwandans and people who were chopped up and that sort of thing, and even going to Kosovo and telling the people in Kosovo, you need to try to make peace, the Albanians with the Serbs in Kosovo. And I know it's hard for you, but it's not any harder than it was - I've had - I've sat in Rwanda with people that I didn't help in Rwanda who had had their whole family hacked up in front of them. And this problem of ethnic hatred is a worldwide problem, and we all owe it to make greater efforts to make peace. So it was quite difficult. But it's easy - it's too easy to project backwards that an international intervention in the heart of Africa on a timetable of a matter of weeks was ever feasible.


RUDIN: Whenever I - going back to the earlier conversation about health care, and I thought that was a very good question that came in. I always think - when you think of the debate that's going on now, everybody says that the Obama administration has learned from the mistakes of the Clinton administration in how they dealt with Congress. You talked about perhaps - maybe President Clinton offered the health care legislation too soon. But regarding tactics, regarding Hillary Clinton's role, regarding that perhaps the perception that it was our way or the highway, did he feel anything that he did wrong with that?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, that's the whole thing of trying to wrestle through - and this is our best notion of a bill and presenting it as their bill. Then, if you don't defend that bill, you start losing ground from weakness, because you have to retreat it. So it almost - that strategy itself obliges you to defend that which makes you vulnerable to our way or the highway. They tried to get a vote up or down on that, and then started getting vulnerable to what he said was the attacks on complexity with the ads from the insurance industry. We have to remember also that in that…

CONAN: "Harry and Louise," let's not (unintelligible)…

Mr. BRANCH: "Harry and Louise" - but in that era, the doctors and the health insurance companies were united against the reform. Nowadays, I think the doctors feel as much victims of the health insurance companies as anyone else, so in that sense it has shifted. But a lot of the other hadn't. But you're right, they chose to present their own bill. They have to defend their bill or suffer the consequences of looking weak and repudiating their own bill, which then makes it a big pinata there for the health care companies to attack.

RUDIN: And it almost seems like the Obama administration did the exact opposite by not proposing a bill, sitting back and letting Congress…

CONAN: Congress write the bill.

RUDIN: And both the houses of Congress on the different committees offer their solutions.

Mr. BRANCH: So both strategies ran into big trouble, which only vindicates the point that this is a really tough issue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This email from Alice(ph) in Oregon. Has Mr. Branch heard from President Clinton since the book's release? What was his reaction to the publishing of the book?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, I've - not since the release, because actually that was only a week ago.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. BRANCH: So it's only been out a week. But when I took him the galleys a month or so ago - I went up to Chappaqua and gave him the proofs, and he did call a bunch of times and had a lot to say about it hot and cold - and I think is nervous that it was this personal. But he - I won't get in to any of the specifics of…

CONAN: Oh, go ahead.

RUDIN: Did you record the conversation?

Mr. BRANCH: No, I did not record - that's a good question, though. No, I didn't. No, but the only people that, actually, that I've heard from since the book came out who've fussed about it have actually been New York Times reporters. So, I haven't heard from President Clinton.

CONAN: I wonder, to your knowledge, is any similar project going on with the Obama administration?

Mr. BRANCH: I wish I knew. I hope so. I wish the country would have a debate about whether we could protect recorded conversations, you know, for 10 years and keep our hands off of them because otherwise we're only going to have mythology and images about, say, why did George Bush go into Iraq. What was he saying? We'll never know. In a people's government, if we could arrange to have the real dynamics of what goes on available 10 years later, I think that it would improve our politics and we can't do it.

CONAN: Taylor Branch, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. BRANCH: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Taylor Branch's book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." He joined us today here in Studio 3A. Ken Rudin, of course, with us as well, NPR's political editor and our Political Junkie. You can read his blog and download his podcast at npr.org/junkie. Thank you, Ken.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

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