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The Clinton Tapes

Wrestling History with the President
By Taylor Branch

Read an Excerpt

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 Katharine 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 people’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 Clinton’s solitary ease. He wore casual slacks and carried a book about President 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 acquaintance. 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 bedroom he shared with Hillary. The plump sofas and console television could have belonged to a cozy hotel suite. Red folders identified classified 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, compiled mostly from newspapers, and a stenographer’s notepad listing priority 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 precedent 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 Mohamed 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.

* President Bush had dispatched 25,000 U.S. soldiers the previous year in a U.N. humanitarian mission, Operation Restore Hope, designed to relieve famine in strife-torn Somalia.

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 treasure of predecessors who taped both sides of their business calls. To record 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 convey 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 retreat 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 establish 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 peacekeeping coalitions for Bosnia or the Middle East.

The Byrd compromise would narrowly prevail over McCain’s withdrawal 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, because 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 optimism, 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 Aidid.

THE PRESIDENT DESCRIBED Powell as a skillful, well-spoken political manager who muffled his own opinions to broker consensus among diverse interests 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 characterization 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 issued an executive order, a super-majority stood poised not only to reinstate 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 meeting 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.” According 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 Caesar 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 Office, leavened with astonishment at such a debate between senators and a brand-new president. “I couldn’t tell,” said Clinton, “whether [Massachusetts 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, Clinton 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 requirement that gay and lesbian citizens must affirmatively lie to serve in the armed forces. He wanted standards to rest on conduct rather than identity. If homosexual soldiers followed military discipline, and steered clear of infractions equivalent to harassment by heterosexuals, or unseemly 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 Virginia. Robb, a Marine veteran, endorsed Clinton’s position as honorable and consistent. The Joint Chiefs, said the president, took almost the opposite 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 estimated 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 essential choices by alleging that Clinton mishandled some unspecified solution, 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 conservative in step with his constituencies in Georgia and the military. Beyond that, Clinton said he respected Nunn as a professional who cooperated across shifting lines of division. It was Nunn, he disclosed, who first proposed to him the six-month delay to fashion a suitable compromise, 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” policy that had emerged in July. To his regret, it enshrined the double standard 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 discourse about homosexuality, like its modern connotation for the word “gay” itself, was barely twenty years old. By historical timetables, a previously 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 Clinton on weak ground, where he would “take a pretty good beating.” Similarly, 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 precise 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 biggest 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 BosniaHerzegovina. Unlike its neighbors in Serbia and Croatia, the heavily Muslim population of Bosnia was isolated without access to arms smuggled 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 settlement.

* 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.

Clinton said U.S. allies in Europe blocked proposals to adjust or remove the embargo. They justified their opposition on plausible humanitarian grounds, arguing that more arms would only fuel the bloodshed, 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 alternatives as a danger to the some eight thousand European peacekeepers deployed in Bosnia to safeguard emergency shipments of food and medical supplies. 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 diplomacy regarding the plight of Europe’s Jews during World War II, President 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 chancellor 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 violence.

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 motive and character. Whereas officials in most governments planted stories 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.

* Eric Schmitt, “The Inauguration/Clinton Set to End Ban on Gay Troops,” New York Times, January 21, 1993, p. 1.

In reviewing his early failures to secure an attorney general, the president stressed the vagaries of political culture. He said he still admired the first choice, Zoë Baird, whose vetting for the post was all but complete when someone noticed that she had just paid her overdue employer’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 enforcement 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 member 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 cogently, and fought for them very hard. Yet he also said there was “something about her approach” to the job that troubled him. He mentioned that when he asked her to replace the much criticized FBI director William 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 reading 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 outlook 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 appreciation 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 derailed 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 personally 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 resignation 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 secure a seat on the Supreme Court. He could be portrayed as both scofflaw 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 describing his Supreme Court selection—a big subject—but he kept talking as though on automatic pilot. He mentioned numerous controversies including 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 exhausting. 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 memoirs, then eventually to release the transcripts at his presidential library.

Down through the Usher’s Office, on past an occasional Secret Service 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 little 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 historians would find most useful, knowing that my own work for years had been sifting presidential clues from the civil rights era. Who could predict what posterity would care about, or judge to be right and wrong? In one sense, Clinton’s perspective seemed unremarkable, like a bull session between friends. However, it was also true that revelations lay hidden 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 book.

© 2009 Taylor Branch

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