Bill Clinton on Tape

Thursday, October 01, 2009


At the beginning of his presidency, Bill Clinton spent hours in private, secret interviews with close friend and Pulitzer prize–winning journalist Taylor Branch. They talked about Monca Lewinsky and the Oklahoma City bombings; they dished about world leaders and soon-to-be president George W. Bush. Now, after years, Branch has amassed his own musings about the talks into a more than 700-page tome. We ask him about his book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President."

(click through to read the first chapter of "The Clinton Tapes")

Twin Recorders
Session One
Thursday, October 14, 1993

President Clinton found me waiting alone in his upstairs office called
the Treaty Room, testing my tiny twin recorders on one corner of a
massive but graceful Victorian desk. It contained a drawer for each cabinet
department under Ulysses Grant, he observed, when Washington could
be run from a single piece of furniture. The president invited me to begin
our work in another room, and I gave him sample historical transcripts to
look over while I repacked my briefcase. He scanned to lively passages. An
anguished Lyndon Johnson was telling Georgia senator Richard Russell in
1964 that the idea of sending combat soldiers to Vietnam "makes the
chills run up my back." A flirtatious LBJ was pleading with publisher Kath-
arine Graham for kinder coverage in her Washington Post. Clinton asked
about Johnson's telephone taping system. How did it work? How did he
keep it secret? For a moment, he seemed to dare the unthinkable. White
House recordings have been taboo since their raw authenticity drove
Richard Nixon from office in 1974. Most tapes of the Cold War presidents
still lay unknown or neglected. By the time scholars and future readers
realize their incomparable value for history, these unfiltered ears to a peo-
ple's government will be long since extinct. To compensate for that loss,
Clinton had resolved to tape a periodic diary with my help.

The president led west through his official residence. Its stately decor
would become familiar and often comforting, but for now my nerves
reduced the Treaty Room to a blurry mass of burgundy around tall
bookcases and a giant Heriz rug. Ahead, walls of rich yellow enveloped
a long central hall of movie-set patriotism that clashed for me with Clin-
ton's solitary ease. He wore casual slacks and carried a book about Presi-
dent Kennedy under an arm. His manner betrayed no pomp, and his
speech retained the colloquial Southernism we had shared as youthful
campaign partners in 1972, before the twenty-year gap in our acquain-
tance. I suffered flashes of Rip van Winkle disorientation that a lost
roommate had turned up President of the United States. Now, instead
of rehashing the day's crises with co-workers at Scholz's beer garden in
Austin, Texas, I followed Clinton into a family parlor next to the bed-
room he shared with Hillary. The plump sofas and console television
could have belonged to a cozy hotel suite. Red folders identified classi-
fied night reading, marked for action or information. Crossword puzzles
and playing cards mingled with books. On one wall, there was a stylized
painting of their precocious daughter Chelsea, then thirteen, dressed up
like a cross between Bo Peep and Bette Midler.

We sat down at his card table. I retrieved two items to help me
prompt him with questions: a daily log of major political events, com-
piled mostly from newspapers, and a stenographer's notepad listing pri-
ority topics for this trial session. With the microcassette recorders placed
between us, I noted the time and occasion for the record. From the start,
Clinton's history project adapted to obstacles beyond the lack of prece-
dent or guidance. We raced to catch up with a daunting backlog from his
first nine tumultuous months in office. He sought to recall a president's
firsthand experience, but the job intruded within minutes in a call from
his chief congressional liaison, Howard Paster. When I started to leave
for his privacy, the president beckoned me to stay. He jotted down the
names of five senators, asked an operator to find them, and told me the
Senate was voting late that night on Arizona Republican John McCain's
amendment requiring the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from
Somalia.* Only eleven days ago, forces loyal to Somali warlord Mo-
hamed Farah Aidid had shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, killed
nineteen Rangers, and dragged American corpses through the streets of
Mogadishu in a searing disaster that Clinton likened to JFK's Bay of
Pigs. Now the president said he must convince five swing senators or
suffer a political defeat that he believed would injure the country.

I turned off the recorders to weigh unforeseen questions. Why not
tape the president's side of these conversations? That would preserve his
actual performance — lobbying, cajoling, being president — in addition to
his private memories. After all, Clinton had just contemplated the trea-
sure of predecessors who taped both sides of their business calls. To re-
cord only his words would avoid the ethical drawbacks of taping others
without their knowledge or consent. On the other hand, posterity would
get only half the exchange — what I was hearing, without the senators'
interaction — which would be hard to decipher. Also, could the president
himself be sure that recording would not inhibit him? How could we
secure a vivid, accurate past without harming the present?

It seemed prudent on balance to tape, but there was precious little
time to analyze such judgments. No sooner did Clinton finish with one
senator than a White House operator buzzed with another on the line.
He was on the phone before I could confirm my rationale with him, and
I merely pointed to the little red lights on the recorders when I turned
them back on. He nodded. I did not emphasize the gesture for fear of
breaking his concentration, or of signaling alarm when I meant to con-
vey assurance. The president worked his way through the list for more
than half an hour. "Harry Reid [Democrat of Nevada] is the most under-
rated man in the Senate," he remarked between calls, then plunged again
to solicit support. "Can you help me out on this?" he asked. He told
them he had "bent over backward" to forge a compromise with Senator
Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who also favored immediate
withdrawal, binding the administration to leave Somalia within six
months unless Congress agreed otherwise.

Clinton said he hoped to be out sooner, but he advanced two main
reasons for the flexible grace period. First, he wanted to restore some
balance in fragile, starving Somalia. U.S. reinforcements this week had
convinced General Aidid that he would "pay very dearly" for attacks,
Clinton told the senators. He said his commanders just that day had
secured the release of a Black Hawk pilot without making concessions.
Killing Americans had enhanced Aidid's local prestige, even though his
own forces suffered nearly a thousand casualties, and too precipitous an
exit by the United States would oblige the rival Somali clans to fight for
gangland parity. Second, Clinton argued that McCain's mandated re-
treat would undermine potential for international missions around the
world. Japan, he told the senators, very reluctantly had supplied troops
to a U.N. force that persevered through losses to help Cambodia estab-
lish a historic, underappreciated stability in the wake of Khmer Rouge
atrocities. He said other nations closely watched our example. If the
United States fled Somalia, it would become still harder to forge peace-
keeping coalitions for Bosnia or the Middle East.

The Byrd compromise would narrowly prevail over McCain's with-
drawal amendment. With the senators, and on tape with me, President
Clinton sifted the lessons from Somalia. He said he had allowed the
United States to get caught up in a vengeful obsession. U.N. secretary-
general Boutros Boutros-Ghali "had a hard-on for Aidid," he said, be-
cause a June attack that killed twenty-four Pakistanis was the worst single
outrage yet inflicted on U.N. peacekeepers. Boutros-Ghali had secured
an international arrest warrant, then called for participant nations in the
Somali crisis to capture Aidid for trial. Against such pressure, Italian
prime minister Carlo Ciampi had objected that a "sheriff's job" would
ruin the U.N.'s stated mission of humanitarian and political assistance.
Ciampi proved wise, the president said with a sigh, but nobody paid
much attention to Italian politicians.

Clinton recalled similar warnings from General Colin Powell, the
outgoing chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, that a targeted pursuit of
Aidid would dominate and eventually displace key political efforts to
reconcile factions throughout Somalia. Moreover, Powell had been
skeptical of proposals for pinpoint operations in the sunbaked chaos of
Mogadishu. He had predicted slim chances for an intelligence-driven
"snatch" by elite units, but the president had given in to wishful opti-
mism, despite hearing more than enough doubt to justify caution. He
said Powell himself, in one of his last acts before retiring from the Army,
had endorsed the confidence of U.S. generals that they could track down

• • •

THE PRESIDENT DESCRIBED Powell as a skillful, well-spoken political manager
who muffled his own opinions to broker consensus among diverse inter-
ests and personalities. This was a role Clinton admired, though in time he
would perceive its limitations in Powell as a potential rival for the White
House. After the phone calls on Somalia, he projected his characteriza-
tion of Powell back to the controversy that engulfed his presidency from
its first day, over a campaign promise to lift the ban on gay and lesbian
soldiers. When the Joint Chiefs came to the Oval Office on the night of
January 25, he recalled, Powell had deferred to his four service chiefs. The
president sketched each vehement presentation, saying they objected to
homosexual soldiers variously as immoral, inflammatory, and dangerous.
He said Powell confined himself to more neutral observations about
maintaining morale and cohesion, along with a formal pledge that the
chiefs would obey the commander in chief in spite of their personal
views. Privately, Clinton added, Powell advised him to discount the
pledge because all the chiefs would communicate these views strongly to
Congress, which could and would overturn any presidential order.

Powell was correct, said Clinton. Congress held sway. If he had is-
sued an executive order, a super-majority stood poised not only to rein-
state the ban on homosexual soldiers but to override any presidential
veto. Support for ending the ban fell below 25 percent in Congress, he
added. The president engaged a question about the introductory meet-
ing with Democratic senators on the night of January 28. Pleasantries
about the inauguration had mixed with worries over gay soldiers, he
said, until elder statesman Robert Byrd changed the tone with his first
words. "Suetonius, the Roman historian," Clinton quoted Byrd, "lived
into the reign of Emperor Hadrian during the second century." Accord-
ing to Suetonius, Julius Caesar never lived down reports of a youthful
affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia (in modern Turkey), such that
wags dared to mock the mighty emperor as "every woman's man and
every man's woman." Byrd told his colleagues and Clinton that for one
senator, at least, this homosexual seed had something to do with the fall
of the world's greatest military empire.

On our tape, Clinton re-created Byrd's speech with feeling. Byrd
said homosexuality was a sin. It was unnatural. God didn't like it. The
Army shouldn't want it, and Byrd could never accept such a bargain
with the devil. Clinton said this classical foray rocked everyone back in
their seats, and touched off discussions ranging from ancient Greece to
cyberspace. Some senators noted that the Roman emperors won brutal
wars for centuries while indulging every imaginable vice. (Augustus Cae-
sar ravaged both sexes, wrote the gossipy Suetonius, and softened the
hair on his legs with red-hot walnut shells.) Byrd invoked Bible passages.
The president said, well, those verses may be so, but in the same Bible
"homosexuality did not make the top-ten list of sins." By contrast, he
told the senators, the Ten Commandments did ban false witness and
adultery, and they all knew that plenty of liars and philanderers were
good soldiers. He said there were sharp stabs of tension in the Oval Of-
fice, leavened with astonishment at such a debate between senators and
a brand-new president. "I couldn't tell," said Clinton, "whether [Mas-
sachusetts Democrat] Teddy Kennedy was going to start giggling or jump
out the window."

Sam Nunn of Georgia had interjected that adultery was in fact a
punishable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Yes, Clin-
ton said he replied, but military investigators did not launch dragnets for
unfaithful spouses or make recruits swear that they are not adulterers.
From the start, he told them, his primary goal was ending the require-
ment that gay and lesbian citizens must affirmatively lie to serve in the
armed forces. He wanted standards to rest on conduct rather than iden-
tity. If homosexual soldiers followed military discipline, and steered
clear of infractions equivalent to harassment by heterosexuals, or un-
seemly displays, he felt their private behavior should stay private. The
president said fellow Democrat Charles Robb had spoken up to agree,
despite the political problems it would cause him in conservative Vir-
ginia. Robb, a Marine veteran, endorsed Clinton's position as honorable
and consistent. The Joint Chiefs, said the president, took almost the op-
posite view. They needed hypocrisy and demanded inconsistency. They
tolerated homosexual troops by the tens of thousands so long as those
troops stayed closeted and vulnerable. "It was a soldier saying he was gay
that offended them more than the lies," Clinton recalled, "and really
more than the private behavior." If homosexual soldiers were allowed to
be truthful, he explained, military commanders feared disruption or
worse from a viscerally anti-gay core of their troops, which they esti-
mated to run about 30 percent.

I asked whether the president thought political posturing on gay
soldiers was more blatant than usual. Pentagon officials had floated the
notion of "segregated" homosexual units. Critics sidestepped the essen-
tial choices by alleging that Clinton mishandled some unspecified solu-
tion, and, with photographers in tow, Senator Nunn and others toured
the bowels of a Navy ship to shiver at the prospect of gay sailors in close
quarters. On the tapes, Clinton came to Nunn's defense. He deplored
his White House staff, and Nunn's own Senate staff, for leaking stories
that Nunn was bitter about not being president, or secretary of defense.
The president, however, said he accepted Nunn as a genuine social con-
servative in step with his constituencies in Georgia and the military.
Beyond that, Clinton said he respected Nunn as a professional who co-
operated across shifting lines of division. It was Nunn, he disclosed, who
first proposed to him the six-month delay to fashion a suitable compro-
mise, suggesting that only a public detour would get gay soldiers out of
the headlines so Clinton could begin his chosen agenda.

The president was philosophical about the "don't ask, don't tell" pol-
icy that had emerged in July. To his regret, it enshrined the double stan-
dard he sought to remove. He quoted Hillary, who in turn was citing
Oscar Wilde, that "hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue." Over
time, the president said, Americans would grow more comfortable with
gay soldiers than with an official policy of winks and deceit. Public dis-
course about homosexuality, like its modern connotation for the word
"gay" itself, was barely twenty years old. By historical timetables, a previ-
ously unmentionable taboo was gaining legitimacy at a rapid pace. Still,
Clinton would be disappointed that military authorities kept finding ways
around their promise not to ferret out homosexual soldiers for expulsion.
The president treated posturing as a natural element. He remarked,
for instance, that he had no idea what Senate Republican leader Bob
Dole of Kansas thought about the merits of gays in the military. "He
may genuinely be for it or against it," said Clinton. "All our discussions
have been about the politics." He said Dole advised him quite candidly
that he intended to keep the issue alive as long as he could to trap Clin-
ton on weak ground, where he would "take a pretty good beating." Sim-
ilarly, the president said Dole consistently advised that budgets were the
most partisan matters between Congress and the White House, and that
Clinton could expect to get few if any Republican votes for his omnibus
bill on taxes and spending. Clinton said Dole spoke of the opposition's
job not as making deals but rather making the president fail, so he could
be replaced as quickly as possible. In fact, he said Dole himself started
running for president within ten days of Clinton's inauguration. "Every
time he goes to Kansas," remarked the president, "he stops off in New
Hampshire on the way."

This was the first of many times that President Clinton spoke  
matter-of-factly about political warfare. He never begrudged survival
and ambition in politicians, whether friend or foe. Indeed, he reveled in
calculations from opposing points of view. These human assessments
were among many intersecting factors that made politics so enthralling
to him — including trends, accidents, strategy, communication, and pre-
cise election returns by district. He loved politics so much that he could
speak almost fondly of his own defeats, seemingly because he had a
prime seat to examine them in retrospect.

AT OUR FIRST session, he volunteered without a question that the two big-
gest failures of his presidency so far were the defeat of his economic
stimulus package and his inability to lift the arms embargo in Bosnia. He
said the stimulus package would have been a symbolically important
public investment in jobs and economic growth, especially after worse-
than-projected budget numbers had forced him to defer his campaign
promise for a broad middle-class tax cut. His first mistake, said Clinton,
was proposing the stimulus package first rather than together with his
budget bill. The latter course would have emphasized how small the
stimulus was relative to the overall deficit, but Clinton's approach
opened him to attack as another Democratic spendthrift. His second
and bigger mistake, he added, was rejecting advice from his chief of staff,
Mack McLarty, to bargain for the necessary votes by agreeing to trim the
stimulus bill in Congress. Instead, said the president, he went for broke
at the urging of Senator Byrd, chair of the Appropriations Committee,
who predicted wrongly that enough opposing senators would give way
in the end. The result was no stimulus bill at all. I asked whether Byrd
may have gotten greedy from long years steering appropriations into his
home state of West Virginia. There could be something to that, Clinton
replied, but he said the bigger lesson was that reputations don't count
votes. In this case, his rookie chief of staff had proved more accurate
than the venerated master of Senate history and procedure.

On Bosnia, the president said his government first had been divided
over proposals for direct intervention to stop the infamous spasms of
violence, the ethnic cleansing, that had plagued the former Yugoslavia
since the end of the Cold War.* He said General Powell and others had
recommended against various military options, arguing that air attacks
were tempting and safe but could not compel a truce, and that ground
troops would be exposed among hostile foreigners in difficult terrain.
Within weeks, the new administration had explored ideas to relax the
international embargo on arms shipments to the region, reasoning that
the embargo penalized the weakest, most victimized nation of Bosnia-
Herzegovina. Unlike its neighbors in Serbia and Croatia, the heavily
Muslim population of Bosnia was isolated without access to arms smug-
gled across the borders. The Bosnian government wanted the embargo
lifted so its people could defend themselves, thereby opening a chance
for military balance among the antagonists that could lead to a political

Clinton said U.S. allies in Europe blocked proposals to adjust or
remove the embargo. They justified their opposition on plausible hu-
manitarian grounds, arguing that more arms would only fuel the blood-
shed, but privately, said the president, key allies objected that an
independent Bosnia would be "unnatural" as the only Muslim nation in
Europe. He said they favored the embargo precisely because it locked in
Bosnia's disadvantage. Worse, he added, they parried numerous alterna-
tives as a danger to the some eight thousand European peacekeepers
deployed in Bosnia to safeguard emergency shipments of food and med-
ical supplies.

* Beginning in 1992, four of the six provinces gained international recognition as
independent countries: Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The remaining Yugoslav Republic consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, with a
capital in Belgrade. Its president, Slobodan Milosevic, led protracted, irredentist
wars to consolidate with ethnic Serbs elsewhere, meeting resistance especially in
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

They challenged U.S. standing to propose shifts in policy
with no American soldiers at risk. While upholding their peacekeepers as
a badge of commitment, they turned these troops effectively into a
shield for the steady dismemberment of Bosnia by Serb forces. When I
expressed shock at such cynicism, reminiscent of the blind-eye diplo-
macy regarding the plight of Europe's Jews during World War II, Presi-
dent Clinton only shrugged. He said President François Mitterrand of
France had been especially blunt in saying that Bosnia did not belong,
and that British officials also spoke of a painful but realistic restoration
of Christian Europe. Against Britain and France, he said, German chan-
cellor Helmut Kohl among others had supported moves to reconsider
the United Nations arms embargo, failing in part because Germany did
not hold a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Clinton sounded as
though he were obliged to start over. He groped amid these chastening
constraints for new leadership options to stop Bosnia's mass sectarian

In a less chilling tone, the president analyzed his administration's
early penchant for leaking stories to the press. He attributed nearly all
the troublesome episodes to his own White House staff, as opposed to
cabinet officers or bureaucrats, and he distinguished the leakers by mo-
tive and character. Whereas officials in most governments planted sto-
ries in order to influence policy, or to jockey for position against rivals,
Clinton diagnosed his leaks as the product of youthful exuberance. He
said they seemed to be ego-driven, from staff members eager to see their
words in the news or prove they were the first to know something. Such
leaks often were frivolous, whimsical, and inaccurate, he said. By playing
to the swagger in his young aides, reporters elicited stories of froth that
gave fodder to his political opposition. Clinton cited the uproar over
one fictional report that he planned a luxury tax to keep rich people
from buying supplementary health insurance. And by press fiat, before
his first organizational meeting in the White House, a mischievous leak
had vaulted gays in the military to the top of the national agenda. The
president complained that he had never really had a "honeymoon" in
the press. Not for the last time, he said it was nettlesome to deal with
sensational leaks rather than substantive politics, but he thought things
were getting better.

In reviewing his early failures to secure an attorney general, the pres-
ident stressed the vagaries of political culture. He said he still admired
the first choice, Zoë Baird, whose vetting for the post was all but com-
plete when someone noticed that she had just paid her overdue em-
ployer's share of Social Security taxes for two illegal immigrants working
in her home. The tardy payment raised a fresh issue of fitness for the
office, since the attorney general was responsible for the fair enforce-
ment of immigration laws. Clinton said the climate turned so swiftly
that her Senate confirmation was doomed before their first meeting,
which became a poignant farewell instead of a potential clash. Baird
spoke graciously, and behaved nobly, from his point of view. She went
out before the press to "fall on her sword," withdrawing her nomination.
His mood soured with first mention of the next choice, U.S. District
Court Judge Kimba Wood. He had not yet asked her to become attorney
general, Clinton insisted, or even agreed to do so. Instead, a staff mem-
ber leaked her name, which hyped the nomination into a controlling
reality. Then, when news emerged that Judge Wood had "nanny tax"
problems, too, the president said she raised distinctions between her
case and Zoë Baird's to defend her prior assurances on this now very
sore point. Clinton used the word "livid" several times to describe his
reaction. He said her obtuseness about politics and public perception
made him glad to pull the plug on a nomination he never made.

There was relief tinged with misgiving about his final selection, Janet
Reno. Clinton's close friend from Little Rock, political science professor
Diane Blair, remembered Reno as a schoolmate of inspirational talent at
Cornell. When he called to take soundings, Florida Democratic senator
Bob Graham had described Reno, a Floridian, as a model prosecutor of
intelligence, integrity, and drive. Clinton agreed with these assessments.
He said Reno considered her opinions carefully, expressed them co-
gently, and fought for them very hard. Yet he also said there was "some-
thing about her approach" to the job that troubled him. He mentioned
that when he asked her to replace the much criticized FBI director Wil-
liam Sessions, to get a fresh start as provided by law, Reno had demanded
several months to make her own independent assessment before she
concurred. He said she tended to remove herself from consultation like
a judge, as sometimes required, and that she was not very good at read-
ing her colleagues in government or providing overall direction. For
Clinton, this impeded her management of the Justice Department's
many functions, from drug enforcement and prison policy to antitrust.
Her aloofness weakened executive control vested in the president. More
personally, it seemed to me, he was complaining that her astringent out-
look on politics left them a mismatched, conversational dud.

Two aspects of his bumpy ride at the Justice Department carried
over into Clinton's choice for the Supreme Court. First, he said he had
hoped to select a "political" justice, if possible, with a background and
reputation in holding elective office. His goal was to restore apprecia-
tion for the Court as an integral branch of balanced government, rather
than a technical specialty for lawyers and judges, and to redress decades
of corrosive cynicism about politics. Second, when circumstances de-
railed his top political choices, Clinton said he ran into yet another snarl
on the treatment of household employees. A review had revealed minor
tax deficiencies for Judge Stephen Breyer, which he corrected. Then the
president had read Breyer's judicial opinions, and interviewed him per-
sonally among several finalists, before the "nanny tax" question re-
emerged in subtler form. Judge Breyer had put two dates on his check to
satisfy the amount due. The earlier one, written shortly after the resigna-
tion of Justice Byron "Whizzer" White in March, was scratched out in
favor of a second date, weeks later, when Democratic governor Mario
Cuomo of New York had publicly withdrawn from consideration. Taken
together, said the president, the two dates could suggest that Judge
Breyer was willing to pay this small, obscure tax only if necessary to se-
cure a seat on the Supreme Court. He could be portrayed as both scoff-
law and skinflint. The evidence was far from conclusive, but Clinton
said it was enough to result in a petty public squabble, which might
overshadow Breyer's qualifications to become a fine justice.

IT WAS MIDNIGHT. President Clinton said he was too tired to finish describ-
ing his Supreme Court selection — a big subject — but he kept talking as
though on automatic pilot. He mentioned numerous controversies in-
cluding the disastrous, lethal FBI raid on sect leader David Koresh's
armed compound in Waco, Texas. I left the recorders running for a time
to capture his unguarded reminiscence, then turned them off to rewind,
fearing that Clinton might judge these sessions too meandering or ex-
hausting. We were just beginning to establish a routine for our off-the-
books history project, with only four or five people witting of its logistics.
The president's sole commitment was to send for me again if and when
he found time.

I labeled each of the rewound microcassettes in ink, and gave them
both to Clinton with a reminder of our talks on custody of the tapes. We
had discussed several options for splitting up the duplicates in order to
safeguard a backup if one set were lost, seized, or subpoenaed, but he
accepted my recommendation that he keep all the tapes, personally, at
least for now. In my view, no extra security from legal privilege or a
separate custodian, including myself, outweighed the value of building
up the president's confidence that he could speak candidly for a unique,
verbatim record under his control. I had promised to do everything I
could to keep the project itself a secret. He said he had a good hiding
place for the tapes. He planned to make first use of them for his mem-
oirs, then eventually to release the transcripts at his presidential library.
Down through the Usher's Office, on past an occasional Secret Ser-
vice agent in the deserted White House corridors, my footsteps echoed
as my mind raced. Had I asked the right questions? Too many or not
enough? There were so many topics. My instinct was to intervene as lit-
tle as possible by dangling neutral subjects for the president to engage or
not, but he seemed to respond more vigorously to questions with a
point of view. He asked what kind of information I thought future his-
torians would find most useful, knowing that my own work for years had
been sifting presidential clues from the civil rights era. Who could pre-
dict what posterity would care about, or judge to be right and wrong? In
one sense, Clinton's perspective seemed unremarkable, like a bull ses-
sion between friends. However, it was also true that revelations lay hid-
den everywhere for specialists and regular citizens alike. A U.S. president
was framing issues, telling stories, and thinking out loud. Inescapably, he
let on what he did and did not notice inside the nation's central  
bunker — what penetrated the walls of government and the clatter of
opinion, and how he shaped and responded to what penetrated.

Here by design was raw material for future history, which filled me
with excitement to preserve my own fresh but fleeting witness. I popped
a blank microcassette into one of the recorders. For more than an hour
on the drive home to Baltimore, finishing in the dark stillness of our
driveway, I dictated every impression and detail I could remember. These
instant recollections would become a habit, forming the basis for this


Taylor Branch


Mary Harris and Molly Webster

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