On Tuesday’s CBS Early Show, co-host Harry Smith painted a glowing portrait of the Clinton administration while previewing a new book on the former president: "During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the nation prospered, he worked to broker peace in the Middle East and in the Balkans, championed welfare reform, and signed the NAFTA free trade agreement."
The book, entitled The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President was written by Clinton friend and historian Taylor Branch, who recorded a series of 79 conversations with the president while in office.
After listing Clinton’s supposed accomplishments, Smith lamented: "But his presidency was marred by numerous investigations, a lawsuit brought by Paula Jones charging sexual harassment, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal." Smith later asked Branch about the scandals: "What was he [Clinton] like during that time?" Branch responded sympathetically: "He talked about it seldom and painfully....He said ‘I cracked’....A little later he said he felt sorry for himself, that he thought he had beaten down all the scandals and then they would keep reviving and coming back....he just said this ‘it’s never going to stop.’" Smith repeated: "Never going to stop."
At Smith’s request, Branch also recounted Clinton’s opinion of George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Branch recalled that Clinton thought Bush "had shrewd political instincts, but he didn’t think he had the moxie to be a president." Smith added: "He called him an empty suit." Branch repeated: "Called him an empty suit."
Smith concluded the interview by giving Branch’s book a fawning endorsement: "A fascinating insight into one of our more fascinating presidents."
Earlier on Tuesday’s Early Show, co-host Maggie Rodriguez spoke with family members of three Americans being held hostage in Iran and wondered if Clinton’s diplomatic skills could help free them: "Have you thought about reaching out to Bill Clinton, who famously went to North Korea to secure the release of those two American journalists?" The brother of one of the hostages replied: "Each case is different, you know, and I think, you know, our case is very different than Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s case. So we’ll take whatever works." Rodriguez insisted: "Have you thought about reaching out to Bill Clinton at all?"
Here is a full transcript of Smith’s interview with Branch:
HARRY SMITH: From travel-gate to Lewinsky, Al gore to Hillary, we’ll give you a secret look inside Bill Clinton’s tumultuous years in the White House.
SMITH: Still ahead, from Monica Lewinsky to Al Gore, we’re going to talk to Taylor Branch, who had inside access to the Clinton White House when we come back.
HARRY SMITH: It turns out that during Bill Clinton’s eight years in the White House, he secretly created an oral history of his presidency by tape recording conversations with a longtime friend and author. A new book based on those conversations provides a revealing look inside the Clinton presidency.
BILL CLINTON: I, William Jefferson Clinton-
SMITH: During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the nation prospered, he worked to broker peace in the Middle East and in the Balkans, championed welfare reform, and signed the NAFTA free trade agreement.
BILL CLINTON: We are ready to compete and we can win.
SMITH: But his presidency was marred by numerous investigations, a lawsuit brought by Paula Jones charging sexual harassment, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Through it all, the President chronicled those events in confidential tape-recorded conversations with friend and historian Taylor Branch. And joining us now is the author of ‘The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President,’ Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch. Good morning, good to see you.
BRANCH: Good morning, Harry.
SMITH: How many trips did you make to the White House for these sessions?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Seventy nine, that actually resulted in full-fledged oral histories. There were a few extra ones that were aborted, but seventy nine full ones over the course of the eight years.
SMITH: You’re in and out of this White House all these dozen and dozens of times during the Clinton presidency. Is there a way to characterize what these conversations were like?
BRANCH: They were always an adventure, because you never new what you were going to find. He talked about lots of different subjects and you never knew what he was going to be doing. You might be talking about a missile strike or helping Chelsea with her home work, so you never knew what was going to happen each time.
SMITH: He kept the tapes, but when you left these sessions, what did you do?
BRANCH: I popped another tape into my recorder that I had just used to record him and recorded every memory I could have driving home to Baltimore.
SMITH: From the almost 80 conversations?
BRANCH: That’s right.
SMITH: So many places I want to hit. And I want to start with the Lewinsky scandal. What was he like during that time?
BRANCH: Well, there was a lot of stress. He also, not surprisingly, didn’t schedule sessions right after the Lewinsky scandal broke or right after he confessed in the summer of 1998, so I didn’t see him until October. By then I think he was a little bit more recovered.
BRANCH: But he talked about it seldom and painfully.
SMITH: Was he remorseful?
BRANCH: Absolutely. He said ‘I cracked.’
SMITH: He cracked.
BRANCH: That was the phrase he used.
SMITH: What do you think he meant by that?
BRANCH: I think he meant just what he said. A little later he said he felt sorry for himself, that he thought he had beaten down all the scandals and then they would keep reviving and coming back. This was the time of China-gate and allegations about Al Gore and a Buddhist temple. And he just said this ‘it’s never going to stop.’
SMITH: Never going to stop. As he is – was leaving the White House, there was the – of course, the election with Al Gore and George Bush. What was his assessment of George Bush, the younger?
BRANCH: It was quite interesting. Early on in the 2000 primaries, he said he thought George Bush and John McCain, who were the – who were the chief rivals, were mirror images. That McCain was qualified to be president, but had no idea how to run and that Bush, the reverse, had shrewd political instincts, but he didn’t think he had the moxie to be a president.
SMITH: He called him an empty suit.
BRANCH: Called him an empty suit.
SMITH: Yeah. Recount the confrontation then between Al Gore and Bill Clinton, after the election.
BRANCH: That was a surprise, I didn’t know to ask about that because sometimes he would just tell me. He said ‘Al Gore came in, I want to put on the record, we had a two hour knock down from both sides about who was responsible for losing the 2000 election back and forth.’
SMITH: Because Bill – because Clinton wanted him – Gore to use him.
BRANCH: Clinton wanted Gore to use him more and Clinton wanted Gore to use a different strategy, to run on the record, saying ‘you’re not going to win if you don’t run on this record.’
SMITH: A fascinating insight into one of our more fascinating presidents. Taylor Branch, thank you very much for joining us this morning.
BRANCH: Thank you, Harry.
SMITH: Do appreciate it.