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Sharing Secrets In 'The Clinton Tapes'

During the eight years that Bill Clinton was president of the United States, he secretly recorded interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch.


Other segments from the episode on September 28, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 28, 2009: Interview with Taylor Branch; Obituary for William Safire.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Sharing Secrets In 'The Clinton Tapes'


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

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

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

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

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

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.

(Soundbite of music)

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

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.

(Soundbite of music)

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?


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

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

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

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…

(Soundbite of laughter)

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


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.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Journalist, Nixon Speechwriter William Safire


William Safire died yesterday of pancreatic cancer. He was 79. He described
himself as a write-wing pundit with four-square opinions on anything you can
name. Safire wrote a syndicated political column for the New York Times from
1973 to 2005 and won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978. From 1979 until
earlier this month, he wrote a language column for the Times Sunday magazine.
So Safire could zap politicians, not just for their positions, but for how they
stated those positions. Safire had also been a speechwriter for President
Nixon. We’re going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded
with Safire in 1992.

I asked him about a famous line he wrote for Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro
Agnew, in 1970 for an address to the California Republican State Convention in
San Diego. The line was: In the United States today, we have more than our
share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.

(Soundbite of past interview)

GROSS: Do you think nattering nabobs of negativism is a bit too much on the

Mr. WILLIAM SAFIRE (Political Columnist, New York Times): Well, I kind of liked
it, I’ll tell you the truth. I gave him another one, the historical
hypochondriacs of history and…

GROSS: Wasn’t it the hopeless historical hypochondriacs of history?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAFIRE: Yes, right – right. There’s a fourth H in there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SAFIRE: But we didn’t use it because the 4-H clubs. We did – we thought
they would then like it. But alliteration was sort of thrust into the American
consciousness by Warren G. Harding, who talked about not nostrums but normalcy,
not experiment but equipoise and he went on for about 10 more alliterations.

GROSS: So, you didn’t think there were too many Ns in that?

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, it seems to have lasted.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. SAFIRE: If he only had two, I don’t think you would’ve gone… For example,
Pat Buchanan came up with pusillanimous pussyfooters and that never went. I
think it needed a third P.

GROSS: Well, of all the lines you’ve written for, you know, in speeches, do you
have favorites that stand out in your mind? Ones that you’re particularly proud

Mr. SAFIRE: You’re asking me to break the code, so you can’t break the code.

GROSS: …You know what – what - explain the code.

Mr. SAFIRE: The code is unless the principle, specifically cites your work as
coming from you, then you stand there and say, I worked with so and so on that
speech. And it’s his speech or her speech.

GROSS: And what is the function of that code?

Mr. SAFIRE: Oh, that’s the law of the speechwriters. And the function of it is
the speechwriter should not get the credit for the speech, because after all,
although a writer might create the words, they are accepted or rejected by the
person responsible for them. And so, I think when a speechwriter today gets the
focus placed on him or her, it somewhat means the speaker.

GROSS: In your book about Job, you write: I started my journey with doubt in my
faith and have come out with faith in my doubt. And then you kind of
parenthetically say, that’s a great speechwriter’s trick, you know, to…

Mr. SAFIRE: That’s the turn around line.

GROSS: The turn around, right. What are some of the other great speechwriter

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, the most famous one of all those lines is let us not fear to
negotiate but let us, you know, let us not negotiate out of fear. Kennedy used
to use those contrapuntal - or Ted Sorensen used to suggest them fairly
frequently, and so did Churchill. The tricks, the anaphora, the repetition of a
particular phrase or line, the beginning of let us – Lincoln used let us do
this, let us do that and everybody else since then have been using it. There
are various oratorical tricks. But frankly, the tricks are not what make a
speech. It’s first, what do I have to say and how can I move people with this.

GROSS: You know, when you worked with the Nixon and Agnew administration, they
were very outspoken in putting down the press. You’re member of the press now.
I don’t know if you wrote any of the lines particularly addressed to
criticizing, you know, the press, but do you feel like the things that you used
to criticize?

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, I never criticize the press. I only criticize the media.
There is a…

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Shall we split hairs over that one.

Mr. SAFIRE: Oh, listen that - that’s my – you’re talking about my dodge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAFIRE: And I think quite frankly, the media are criticizable(ph). I
construe that is plural. And the press is criticizable, particularly by the
press and by the media. That’s the best kind of criticism. We zap each other
for being a bunch of liberals or a bunch of hidebound conservatives. And this
is nice, self-cleaning process. When politicians criticizes us, and use our
lack of popularity - which is almost down as low as politicians - and appeal to
people by saying that, you know, the damn media won’t let me say this, or won’t
cover me. That’s a device, and we have to recognize it and let it, you know,
those peas roll off our knife.

GROSS: William Safire, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SAFIRE: Thanks very much, Terry.

GROSS: William Safire recorded in 1992. He died yesterday at the age of 79.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, I’m
Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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