The Clinton Tapes: A book with a rich backstory

Sometimes the story surrounding a book is as interesting as the book itself. That is almost the case with Taylor Branch's "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President," scheduled for release next week. Note that I said almost.

According to Branch (a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian), the book's gems are rich indeed. They include a few moments of candid emotional, commentary from the former president on his affair with Monica Lewinsky; tales of drunken antics on the White House lawn by Boris Yeltsin; Clinton's take on an unhappy, mutually recriminating conversation he and Al Gore had after Gore lost the 2000 US presidential election; Clinton's assessment of the Republican candidates vying to succeed him in 2000; and much more.

So it will be hard to overestimate the amount of reader interest in the book itself. But quite fascinating in its own fashion is an interview with Branch in today's USA Today that talks about he making of this book. Apparently Branch and Clinton had a series of 79 secret, often late-night conversations throughout the course of Clinton's presidency. Clinton and Branch were friends from long ago. (In 1972 they roomed together while working for George McGovern's presidential campaign in Austin, Texas).  Clinton offered to give Branch the interviews, hoping that they would help him with his memoirs and also that Branch might become his personal historian.

Apparently Clinton himself taped all the conversations and hid the tapes in his sock drawer (a treasure trove that must already have historians salivating). Branch did not make tapes while the two men talked, but says that he would tape his own recollections of the conversations afterward as he drove from the White House back to his own home in Baltimore.

The conversations generally all took place late at night, often when Clinton was exhausted. There would be interruptions – once to discuss air strikes in Bosnia, another time to help Chelsea edit a paper she was writing for her high school English class.

As USA Today points out, the relationship between Clinton and Branch is unusual and perhaps unprecedented. To say that, "Publication of Branch's book has underscored the conflicting agendas of friend and historian," is perhaps an understatement.

In the history of US presidential biographies and memoirs there has never been a book – or a project, if you include the tapes themselves – quite like this one.  Only time will tell how much of an impact it will have on future assessments and understanding of the Clinton presidency.

(Chapter & Verse readers are reminded that the Monitor Books podcast can be accessed either through iTunes or by clicking here.)

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