UNC-CH gets Clinton-era papers

Historian Taylor Branch's material will be open to public next year

Staff WriterSeptember 23, 2009 

  • The Southern Historical Collection at UNC-CH is a vast repository for records documenting the American South -- 16 million items in 4,600 collections. It includes records from virtually every U.S. president, as well as the personal correspondence and other documents from all manner of notable North Carolinians -- from Frank Porter Graham to Andy Griffith.

    A few highlights include a collection of a half-million documents from Sen. Sam Ervin, the North Carolinian who presided over the Watergate investigation; the collections of North Carolina politicians Luther Hodges, Terry Sanford and others; and documents and other materials donated by author Walker Percy, bandleader Kay Kyser and documentarian Ken Burns.

— On Jan. 4, a new window into Bill Clinton's presidency will open at UNC-Chapel Hill.

That's when a trove of source material Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch used for his new book on the Clinton presidency will become publicly available at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-CH.

Branch, a 1968 UNC-CH graduate, has a long relationship with the historical collection. The source materials -- interviews, transcriptions, correspondence -- that led to his prize-winning writings on Martin Luther King Jr., are already in the university's possession. Now, too, are the Clinton records.

Historians are "going to be looking at the firsthand reflections of a seasoned and wise historian on what was going on then. I think that's worth something," said Tim West, the Southern Historical Collection's curator.

"It's different from what President Clinton was saying himself," he said. "It's not just a sort of verbatim record that he was making of what he remembers hearing Clinton say, but also what he noticed happening around the White House. There's going to be interesting stuff."

Clinton and Branch were friends as young politicos working on the George McGovern campaign in Texas in 1972. They reconnected when Clinton won the presidency and wanted to create a historical record. These materials are the result of dozens of secret meetings Clinton held with Branch during his presidency.

But they're not the recordings of the interviews themselves, or even transcriptions. Clinton kept those tapes -- squirreled away in his sock drawer, according to a story this week in USA Today -- and Branch was left to re-create the interviews and observations on his own audiotapes. He often did so immediately after leaving a meeting with Clinton as he drove back home to Baltimore, according to the USA Today report.

Branch gave 80 or 90 audio tapes to UNC-CH along with reams of transcriptions, letters and other paperwork he used while working on the book, "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President."

Behind the scenes

One obvious question: What does the material say about Monica Lewinsky?

West said he hasn't yet reviewed all the material and doesn't know. Branch told USA Today that Clinton was less candid on that topic than he was on most others, usually giving the same stock answers he gave to the press at the time.

Branch's materials should provide a glimpse of Clinton that the public has yet to see, said Terry Sullivan, a UNC-CH political scientist who studies American presidents. Even in an era of 24-hour news coverage and instant communication, the public actually learns very little about presidents while they're in office, Sullivan said. The true details of a presidency only trickle out in document form decades later, he said.

"The picture of what presidents actually do is vastly different from the official daily schedule that is provided to the press and to the public," he said. "We're virtually ignorant about what the president does based on press accounts and even memoirs."

But Sullivan cautions that presidents are notoriously guarded and cautious -- even in seemingly candid moments. So the portrait of Clinton that emerges from Branch's materials may still not be an unvarnished take.

Politicians, he said, "are particularly skilled in their ability to behave strategically."

"They're never off. The veil never falls off."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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