In an advance copy of Her Way, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. claim that Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a "secret pact" early in their careers to "capture the presidency for Bill," which the Clintons later expanded to include two terms as president for her. In an appearance on Good Morning America, Gerth and Van Natta dodged questions about the latter claim.
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In an advance copy of Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown & Co.) obtained by Media Matters for America, co-authors Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. claim that former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) made a "secret pact" early in their careers to "capture the presidency for Bill." Gerth and Van Natta also assert that after Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in 1993, he and Hillary Clinton expanded this so-called "twenty-year project" to include two terms as president for her. As Media Matters has noted, historian Taylor Branch -- the authors' purported source for the allegation of a "plan" for a Hillary Clinton presidency -- has reportedly described the story as "preposterous." But when asked generally about Branch's objection during a June 4 appearance on ABC's Good Morning America, Gerth simply pointed out that the first allegation -- that the Clintons devised a "plan" in the 1970s that included a Bill Clinton presidency -- "has not been refuted." Additionally, while Van Natta defended the first claim in a June 4 post on the Huffington Post weblog, he ignored the dispute surrounding the second allegation.
In the advance copy of Her Way, Gerth and Van Natta claim that "in the earliest days of their romance," the Clintons made a "secret pact" to "revolutionize the Democratic Party and, at the same time, capture the presidency for Bill" -- their so-called "twenty-year project." Gerth and Van Natta cite former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta and an anonymous "former Clinton administration official" as their sources for the Clintons' original "twenty-year project." Panetta has neither confirmed nor denied the statements attributed to him by Gerth and Van Natta.
The source for Gerth and Van Natta's claim that the Clintons revised their "plan" is a secondhand account by former New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden and her husband, John Henry, of a conversation they told the authors they had with Branch. Crittenden and Henry claim that during the conversation, Branch disclosed that Clinton had told him in 1993 that their "plan" was for both Clintons to become president, a claim that Branch has reportedly dismissed as "preposterous."
During Gerth and Van Natta's appearance on Good Morning America, co-anchor Chris Cuomo brought up Branch's response. Cuomo said: "The proof, in part, you use Taylor Branch, the famed historian, friend of the Clintons. He now says it's preposterous." In his reply, Gerth did not address the disputed claim and instead said of Branch, "That's not the source of the 20-year project. The source of the 20-year project is Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff in the mid-1990s." Gerth added: "The words 'the 20-year project' and the description of it ... ha[ve] not been refuted."
But Gerth and Van Natta did not cite Panetta as a source for the additional claim that the Clintons updated their "plan" soon after Bill Clinton became president to include a two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, the only source for which was, again, Crittenden and Henry, who claimed Branch told a story that Branch reportedly says he did not tell.
Likewise, in Van Natta's June 4 entry on The Huffington Post, he addressed a "a recent denial by Senator Clinton's aides of her early political ambition" by conflating the two versions of the alleged plan -- the first version, attributed to Panetta and an unnamed former Clinton administration official, in which Bill Clinton would become president, and the second version, attributed by a secondhand account to Branch, in which Hillary Clinton would also become president. Van Natta responded to the aides' "recent denial" by simply noting that Panetta's "on-the-record description [of the first version] has not been disputed." However, he made no mention of Branch's objection to the second version.
Van Natta wrote:
This "20 year project" came out of the mouth of Bill Clinton. He said it to Leon Panetta, then his chief of staff, aboard Air Force One in the fall of 1996. Panetta had asked the president why he had depended on someone like Dick Morris for political advice. "You need to hear from the dark side, and Morris represented that," the president confided to Panetta. Morris was a crucial navigator to help Bill and Hillary "understand the [former House Speaker Newt] Gingriches of the world," the president explained.
Clinton went on to say that Morris was part of a larger strategic plan conceived, he said, by Hillary and him more than two decades ago -- their "twenty-year project," Panetta explained to us.
Despite a recent denial by Senator Clinton's aides of her early political ambition, this on-the-record description has not been disputed.
In his separate entry on The Huffington Post, Gerth did not address the alleged "secret pact" at all.
From the June 4 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:
CUOMO: And with that setup, Cuomo's next question goes right to the marriage, showing how deep I am. There has been a lot of speculation about the marriage, and interestingly, in your book, you offer an explanation for maybe why Hillary stayed with Bill through all these things, Monicagate and the like. A 20-year pact of ambition. Don, explain to me, what does that mean?
VAN NATTA: Before they exchanged their marriage vows in 1978 in Arkansas, they exchanged their political vows. They decided, in the mid-'70s, they were just in their 20s, in Arkansas, that they were going to remake the Democratic Party, and within 20 years, Bill Clinton was going to be president of the United States. Now, this is an audacious kind of goal to set, and they went about and did it. And it's been the glue that's held their relationship together since.
CUOMO: Big charge. Judging the marriage as something. You know, there's no other way to look at that allegation. The proof, in part, you use Taylor Branch, the famed historian, friend of the Clintons. He now says it's preposterous.
GERTH: That's not the source of the 20-year project. The source of the 20-year project is Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff in the mid-1990s. He heard this in a conversation with President Clinton in 1996 on Air Force One. The words "the 20-year project" and the description of it come from President Clinton himself, as recounted by Leon Panetta in an on-the-record interview, which has not been refuted. And by the way, we even have an additional source. All of which is spelled out in the book.
CUOMO: That you believe is fair to take as fact as opposed to a colorful characterization? Because it's a heavy charge to judge a marriage that way.
GERTH: Sure. Look, no outsider can get inside somebody else's marriage, and we don't pretend to. But we do say that they did have this political pact that they forged. They were married, I think, in 1975, and before they were even married, they had this audacious plan. And Leon Panetta -- in fact, the question that prompted the reply from the president was, "Why have you used Dick Morris all these years?" -- the controversial political strategist. And Bill Clinton's answer was, in essence, "Well, we had this plan. We had to do what we had to do. We had to, you know, understand our enemies, and that's why we relied on Dick Morris."