Miami Book Fair: Taylor Branch Talks About 'The Clinton Tapes'

Back in the 1970s, while working on George McGovern's doomed presidential bid in Texas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Taylor Branch shared a room with two driven young Yalies named Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

​When the man from Hope won the White House in '92, Clinton invited Branch -- in secret, even from his top advisors -- to record interviews with him.

Eight years of furtive taping led to this year's 700-page The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President (Simon & Schuster, $35). The book sketches a behind-the-scenes portrait of the most powerful man on Earth.

Branch will speak about the project on Saturday at the Miami Book Fair. The talk, scheduled at noon in the Chapman Conference Center, is free but does require a ticket.

 "This is a unique book because it's not meant to be a historical evaluation. I was just too close to Bill for that," Branch says.

Instead, The Clinton Tapes fills in the blanks behind the biggest moments of Clinton's presidency as they happened. 

For instance, after Castro shot down Cuban-American pilots during the Brothers to the Rescue crisis in 1994, Branch writes, Clinton threatened Fidel Castro with military retaliation. "He was really starting to dip his toes in the water on loosening the embargo before that, but Fidel put him in a spot where he had no choice but to back out," Branch says today.

Click through for a full Q&A with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years."

Riptide: Why didn't Clinton take a more active role in the Elian Gonzalez saga?

Branch: He interpreted it primarily through the lens of election politics as it affected Al Gore, in part because it did happen so late in his term, and in part also because most of the decisions that came to bear on what to do came through the Justice Department and through the courts. 

Even in normal times, Clinton didn't feel he had much control over the Justice Department because of the special prosecutors. The fact of the matter is that earlier in the book, he wanted to replace Janet Reno altogether and felt he couldn't because he was almost paralyzed by the special prosecutor.

Riptide: You really paint of picture of a difficult relationship with Reno.

Branch: It was especially difficult at the beginning, and through the first term. He didn't feel comfortable with her. His respect for her grew a little bit, but he never really had collegial relations with Reno.

Riptide: In terms of his Cuba policy, Clinton is very forthright in your tapes that he didn't agree with the embargo.

Branch: He felt it was illogical to the point where he says that "any idiot can see it's not working." He really wanted to try to engage with Cuba. But to run out with Fidel was politically dangerous. 

His perspective also changed after Castro blew up of the Brothers to the Rescue planes. He was really starting to dip his toes in the water on loosening the embargo before that, but Fidel put him in a spot where he had no choice but to back out.

The president even reached out to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had a very good relationship with Castro. Clinton told Garcia Marquez, "I have no communication with Castro, but he ruined any effort toward reconciliation by shooting down those planes." Garcia Marquez told him, "Don't you think he knows that it was a terrible mistake?"

Riptide: You are careful in the book to note that you don't want this to be a historical assesment of Clinton's presidency. Why not?

Branch: It's just too soon, for one thing. I think we can only begin to assess it now, and it's going to fluctuate over time. I also didn't present this as a historical assessment for the same reason I didn't want to be an in-house historian. I was too close to him. 

I felt more like a staff person than a historian, so I would never want to pretend to be writing objectively about him. This is really a kind of record for other people to evaluate later.

Riptide: What has surprised you the most about the reaction to your book?

Branch: It really surprises me that public mantras continue in the media that Clinton didn't really believe in anything, that he was kind directionless. 

On Haiti alone, the fact that (he authorized an invasion to restore President Aristide) with just 8 percent public support, facing threats from his own best allies that he'd be impeached should dispell any notion that he was a finger in the wind or spineless.

Riptide: What parts of the Clinton presidency are you fielding the most questions about as you travel around the country?

Branch: Of course at the beginning, everyone latched onto the most sensational segments, like the revelation about Yeltsin in his underpants. (Ed: The book includes an anecdote about former Russian President Boris Yeltsin drunkenly sneaking away from his Secret Service handlers only to be found on a Washington street corner in the middle of the night, clad in his underwear and trying to find a pizza.)

As I travel around now, I'm getting more and more questions now from people who have actually read the book. I'm getting more questions about his relations with Hilary and Chelsea and just the family side of the White House. That's the part that makes him nervous. He's afraid people will distort the personal part of it. 

But I put it in there because that's part of our president. They are human beings and they have family lives. I dream of the day when citizens have a more balanced view of the president instead of these cartoon images that dominate our public debate.

Riptide: What's your relationship like with Clinton today?

Branch: I think we'll always be friends. In the second chapter, I run into him again and I hadn't see him in 20 years and I thought he'd be a stranger. We reconnected instantly and it made me ashamed of an assumption that he'd be a stranger. We always seem to pick it right back up again when we meet. 

But we'll never have that same association again that we had with this project. He'd been trying to be president his whole life and I'd been writing about the King era and trying to get into the White House to write about the presidency for decades. That's a closer relationship, when it came together, than we're likely to ever have again.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink