A series of secret interviews President Bill Clinton gave an old friend are about to surface in a book offering remarkable new insight into the Clinton presidency.
Clinton gave the 79 interviews to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch over the course of his presidency, and Clinton hid the tapes of those sessions in a sock drawer at the White House.
But following each interview, Branch made a tape of his own recounting what Clinton had discussed during the session, and those tapes provide the material for Branch's book "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President," to be published on Sept. 29.
In one interview, Clinton told how Russian President Boris Yeltsin's late-night drinking during a visit to Washington in 1995 nearly created an international incident.
Yeltsin was staying at Blair House, the government guest quarters. Late one night, Secret Service agents found Yeltsin, clad only in his underwear, standing alone on Pennsylvania Avenue and trying to hail a cab, according to a preview of the book in Monday's USA Today.
Slurring his words, Yeltsin told the agents he wanted a pizza.
The following night, Yeltsin eluded security forces and climbed down back stairs to the Blair House basement. A guard thought Yeltsin was a drunken intruder until U.S. and Russian agents arrived on the scene.
Clinton was reluctant to discuss the Monica Lewinsky affair that led to his impeachment. But in August 1999 he did tell Branch that it occurred when he "just cracked" under the pressure of several setbacks, including the Democrats' loss of Congress in the 1994 elections, the death of his mother and the Whitewater investigation.
Clinton also related to Branch details of a heated discussion he had with Al Gore after the then-vice president lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.
Clinton told Gore he could have won the election if he had sent Clinton to campaign in Arkansas or New Hampshire, where Clinton was popular. Winning either state would have given Gore a victory.
Gore countered that Clinton's scandals had been a "drag" that plagued his campaign, and the two "exploded" at each in mutual recrimination, according to Branch.
As for Bush, Clinton told Branch he was "unqualified to be president, but had shrewd campaign instincts," while John McCain "might make a good president, but he had no idea how to run."
Branch's 707-page work reveals a president who delighted in policy and politics but "always thought he was trapped in the personal issues," Branch told USA Today.
There have been White House recordings beginning with the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, but the secret systems that captured the phone conversations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the meetings of Richard Nixon have now been dismantled.
Clinton has already seen page proofs of Branch's new book, and Branch said: "I think it's fair to say he's nervous."
Branch's tapes will be made available to researchers next year at the University of North Carolina.
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