Tomasky review further rebuts Gerth/Van Natta report of long-time plan for Hillary Clinton presidency

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

In a review of Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.'s Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown & Co., June 2007) in the July 19 issue of The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky highlighted a May 31 written statement (provided in full below) by historian Taylor Branch that undermines Gerth and Van Natta's public defenses of a disputed allegation contained in their book -- that after President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he and Hillary Clinton updated their alleged "twenty-year project" to include "eight years as president for him, then eight years for her."

In the book, Gerth and Van Natta attribute this allegation to 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 in Aspen, Colorado, in which Branch purportedly disclosed that Bill Clinton had told him of the updated "plan." On the June 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, in response to Branch's description of the allegation as "preposterous," Van Natta suggested that Branch, when interviewed by the authors during the writing of the book, said he "couldn't remember" the allegation regarding the Clintons. However, in his May 31 statement, Branch asserted that what he had been unable to recall was seeing Crittenden and Henry "in Aspen years ago." As for the alleged conversation between the three of them, Branch stated that the authors "never told" him what he was "supposed to have said" to Crittenden and Henry and asserted that it was not until receiving advanced "proofs" of Her Way that he become aware of the substance of "a story attributed to me therein from the summer of 1993." Branch further stated he had "never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president."

As Media Matters for America has noted, Gerth and Van Natta allege in Her Way that, in the 1970s, the Clintons agreed to a "twenty-year project," which initially consisted of "a political partnership with two staggering goals: revolutionize the Democratic Party and, at the same time, capture the presidency for Bill." Gerth and Van Natta also claim that the alleged "pact" was expanded after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 to include "eight years as president for him, then eight years for" Hillary Clinton. Following is the passage from Her Way (Pages 128-129) in which Gerth and Van Natta source this allegation to a secondhand account of a purported conversation between Bill Clinton and Branch:

By the summer of 1993, the ways of Washington, sometimes called Potomac fever, had not dissuaded Bill or Hillary. According to one of their closest friends, Taylor Branch, they still planned two terms in the White House for Bill and, later, two for Hillary.

Branch described the plan to two Washington friends, John Henry and Ann Crittenden, over a barbeque dinner at a rodeo in Aspen, Colorado, that summer. 71 The president would frequently talk with Branch, a well-respected historian and author, about his place in history, and shortly after he was elected president, Branch said, Bill asked him to begin recording "diary sessions" as part of an oral-history project.

Branch had just come from one of those sessions, a marathon late-night chat with Bill at the White House, where the two men had talked as they stood on the back balcony, looking toward the Washington Monument. Now in the cool mountains of Colorado, Branch told his friends about the Clintons' presidential plans. The bold goal of sixteen years in the White House took Henry's breath away. "I was shocked," he said.

The endnote this passage referred to reads:

71. Author interviews with John Henry and Ann Crittenden in 2007. Branch, in an interview with one of the authors in 2007, said, "I don't remember" the conversation but "I'm not denying it." He acknowledged that he knows Henry and Crittenden and that he has been to Aspen many times. But Branch declined to discuss Hillary or Bill, saying it was "stupid" to do so in light of the fact that he was doing his own book on Bill's presidency.

In a May 25 article on the book, the Post reported that "Branch said that 'the story is preposterous' and that 'I never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president.' " In his May 31 statement on the "story attributed to me" in Her Way, Branch called it "disingenuous" for the authors to imply in the above endnote that he was " 'not denying' the substance of the story," and he stated that Gerth "never told me what I am supposed to have said in the summer of 1993." Following is Branch's full statement:

On May 24, 2007, I received by email copies of pages 128, 129, and 372 from the book Her Way, by Jeff Gerth, along with press inquiries about a story attributed to me therein from the summer of 1993.

The story is preposterous in several respects. First, I never heard either Clinton talk about a "plan" for them both to become president. Late in his second term, she and I did have a few glancing conversations about whether she might run for the Senate.

Second, my "diary sessions" with President Clinton did not begin until October of 1993. Before that, I did not see him for the twenty years between 1972 and the end of 1992. We began to get reacquainted in a handful of encounters during 1993, mostly in large groups. He was not disclosing long-term family ambitions to me then, and he never subsequently mentioned anything remotely like those described here.

Third, Mr. Gerth never told me what I am supposed to have said in the summer of 1993. I learned that only last week from the proofs of his book. It is disingenuous for him to imply that I am "not denying" the substance of his story. What I didn't deny is that I saw Ann Crittenden and John Henry in Aspen years ago. When Mr. Gerth called, I declined his request for an interview and asked him not to start discussing Clinton stories with me on the telephone. He was kind enough to comply.

This is a very small episode in fact, but fiction can readily impugn motives. Reporters who wish to clarify details on my role may contact me here in Baltimore.

Nonetheless, on the June 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, while defending the allegation regarding the Clintons' plan that both of them would become president, Van Natta suggested that what Branch "couldn't remember" was the allegation itself -- even though, according to Branch, Gerth never informed him what he was "supposed to have said" to Crittenden and Henry. During his appearance with Gerth, Van Natta said of the alleged updated plan: "Bill Clinton said that to Taylor Branch. Taylor Branch said it to two people, who told us on the record about it. ... Taylor Branch wouldn't comment about it for us. And now he says he definitely did not say it. But he couldn't remember it when we asked him about."

Furthermore, in his defenses of the allegation, Gerth has misleadingly suggested that Branch has contradicted himself on the issue, while omitting that he never informed Branch of the "substance" of the disputed conversation in Aspen:

  • During the June 12 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Gerth claimed that he "interviewed Taylor Branch before the book and he didn't remember the conversation. He now says that he doesn't remember saying this."
  • On the June 10 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Gerth claimed that after interviewing Crittenden and Henry he "later contacted Taylor Branch, asked him if he remembered the dinner in Aspen. He said he didn't, but he said he wouldn't deny it. Then he later, when the book came out, said it was preposterous."
  • During the June 12 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Gerth claimed, "I called Taylor Branch and he didn't remember the dinner. Now he says he remembers not saying this particular conversation."

From the June 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: OK. Let's go to some real controversy here. In your book, Her Way, you say that Bill and Hillary Clinton had a "twenty-year project" to -- for both of them to be president.

"More than three decades ago," you quoted, "in the earliest days of their romance, Bill and Hillary struck a plan, one that would become both the foundation and the engine of their relationship. They agreed to work together to revolutionize the Democratic Party and, ultimately, make the White House their home. Once their 'twenty-year project' was realized, with Bill's victory in 1992, their plan became even more ambitious: eight years as president for him, then eight years for her."

To what extent can you prove that they had such a plan, Don?

VAN NATTA: Well, Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff in 1996, heard Bill Clinton say it. The words "twenty-year project" came out of Bill Clinton's mouth in a conversation with Leon Panetta on Air Force One. We have Leon Panetta on the record saying it.

We have a second source who heard Bill Clinton say it during the '90s while he was president.

MATTHEWS: Was that "twenty-year" -- did that 20 years refer to the period 1980 through 2000, when he went from being governor to president? Or do you suggest or argue that that refers to his presidency, followed by Hillary's presidency?

VAN NATTA: No, no, I'm only talking about the "twenty-year project," Chris. That's from the mid-70s --

MATTHEWS: Right.

VAN NATTA: -- before they even exchanged their marriage vows --

MATTHEWS: OK.

VAN NATTA: -- they exchanged their political vows. That other issue about the eight years for him followed by eight years for her, Bill Clinton said that to Taylor Branch. Taylor Branch said it to two people, who told us on the record about it.

MATTHEWS: And then denied it?

VAN NATTA: Well, Taylor Branch -- we actually contacted Taylor Branch. Taylor Branch didn't -- wouldn't comment about it for us. And now he says he definitely didn't say it, but he couldn't remember it when we asked him about it. He's one of Bill Clinton's best friends.

MATTHEWS: Oh, I know that. I know that very well. Look, here's Senator Clinton's office. Here's what she had to say in her statement that came out today on Her Way, "There may debate about whether Tony Soprano died -- but one thing is clear: This book is dead on arrival."

Well, that was -- you know, that's Capitol Hill sort of trash talk. I don't know what to make of it. Let me go to Ed Schultz. What do you make of the charges that Clintons had this thing planned from day one; that they were going to share -- sort of like William and Mary back in England -- they were going to be dual monarchs, with one following the other in power?

SCHULTZ: Chris, I think it's a sad day in America when this is the best critique we can give of a couple that has got a record of public service and wanting to help people, that they would actually have a goal in life. Look at the lack of participation of young people in this country, and here you have the Clintons making an example. There's nothing wrong with setting a goal to be president of the United States.

There's nothing wrong with couples setting political goals. The fact is the Clinton years were productive for this country and a lot of people, especially in the Midwest, are looking for maybe more of the same if Hillary can win the nomination. I think it's great. What a great example that -- for young people that it's good to have a goal and move forward.

They didn't break any laws doing this. They had a goal. They want to help people.

VAN NATTA: Chris, we don't -- we don't make any judgment that it's a bad thing or a good thing. We simply report this. This is news. This is interesting. It's revealing. In Hillary Clinton's own book, her autobiography Living History, she doesn't signal any impulse at all for ambition. You know, it's incredible. She says that she ran for the Senate basically by popular demand.

From the June 12 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

GERTH: Sure, it's a fascinating, you know, probably one of the most fascinating relationships, and I think, I've said this before, no person can crawl inside someone else's marriage, so I don't want to pretend that we know, you know, everything about their marriage, but I do think we demonstrate in the book that they took their political vows before their marital vows. And we describe, as described to us by Leon Panetta, the former chief of staff for President Clinton, this audacious plan. Bill Clinton called it their "twenty-year project," which was hatched in the 1970s when they were in their mid-20s, and the goal put together by he and Hillary was to reshape the Democratic Party and capture the presidency, which, of course, they did.

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, no doubt about it. Hey, talk about the personal aspect of it where you have people talking about this relationship and so many people have been writing about it since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. You usually have people close to them saying, despite how tortured it became in later years, that Hillary was deeply, deeply in love with Bill Clinton.

[...]

SCARBOROUGH: Finally, I was -- John Ridley was just handed me a note talking about this "twenty-year plan." I know even before the book came out you were challenged on the plan. What's the suggestion, that Panetta was just talking about Bill Clinton--

GERTH: No, no, no. The challenge is--

SCARBOROUGH: -- and not Hillary?

GERTH: It's something different. No one's challenged Leon Panetta's account. I mean, Panetta heard it from Bill Clinton himself. What we also write about in the book is that once they got into the White House in 1993 and had achieved the "twenty-year project," we recount an episode at a dinner, at a barbeque dinner in Aspen, Colorado, where two friends of Taylor Branch say he told them that he had just come from the White House and Bill had talked to him about his plan of serving eight years in the White House, hardly a surprise, and that Hillary then would, at some point, have eight years of his [sic] own. Now, Taylor Branch has -- I interviewed Taylor Branch before the book and he didn't remember the conversation. He now says that he doesn't remember saying this, but I should also point out that Taylor Branch has admitted that when it comes to Bill Clinton, he can't be objective. So, it's a "he said-she said" versus a "he said."

From the June 10 edition of NBC News' Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Let's go right to it. One of the important parts of this book is this notion of a grand design by Bill and Hillary Clinton to each serve two terms in the White House. This is the way you write about it: "By the summer of 1993, the ways of Washington ... had not dissuaded Bill or Hillary. According to one of their closest friends, Taylor Branch, they still planned two terms in the White House for Bill, and, later, two for Hillary."

You know what's happened now. This is The Washington Post reporting on this: "The authors report that the Clintons updated their plan after the 1992 election, determining that Hillary would run when Bill left office. They cite two people, [former Times reporter] Ann Crittenden and John Henry, who said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and close Clinton friend, told them, 'The Clintons still planned two terms in the White House for Bill, later, two for Hillary.' Contacted last night, Branch said that 'the story is preposterous. I never heard either Clinton talk about a plan for them both to become president.' " What do you say?

GERTH: Well, Tim, I interviewed Ann Crittenden and John Henry, and they both separately recalled a barbecue dinner in Aspen, Colorado, in 1993 at a rodeo with Taylor Branch, and they were remembering him saying that he had just come from the White House -- he's a historian, and he had begun talking with President Clinton, and he told them about -- that Bill Clinton was going to serve eight years and then, at some point, Hillary was going to do eight years in the White House.

I later contacted Taylor Branch, asked him if he remembered the dinner in Aspen. He said he didn't, but he said he wouldn't deny it. Then he, later, when the book came out, said it was preposterous. I think I would add, Taylor is a respected historian, but he himself has admitted that when it comes to Bill Clinton, he can't be objective. So there are two people -- you know, Ann Crittenden's an award-winning journalist -- two people who say, "Yea," and Taylor Branch says, "Nay."

I mean -- I think more interestingly and more surprisingly, the ambition of the Clintons going back to when they were in their 20s, and the 20-year project that Leon Panetta remembers Bill Clinton describing to him.

RUSSERT: Well, Panetta said Bill Clinton running for president --

GERTH: Correct.

RUSSERT: -- but it was never about Hillary.

GERTH: No. But, but Bill Clinton, of course, at that point in the '70s, even before they married, was talking about Hillary Clinton -- that she could be president, but she'd had to subordinate her plans, of course, to his, coming to Arkansas.

RUSSERT: Philippe Reines, the press secretary for Senator Clinton, offered this statement to Meet the Press: "I have an on-the-record, named source extremely familiar with the facts of her life -- and I'm telling you it's absurd, bogus, nonsensical, conjured. Take your pick" -- his source obviously being Senator Clinton.

VAN NATTA: Well, Senator Clinton didn't speak with us for this book, Tim, and --

RUSSERT: Did you ask her?

VAN NATTA: We did. We went to her at the very beginning. In fact, I reached out to Howard Wolfson, her communications person, and when we told him about this book, he sighed audibly and it was as if somebody had punched him in the stomach, and he let us know that she had heartburn, basically, about this book, and so did [Clinton communications director] Lorraine Voles.

And it went beyond just Senator Clinton not cooperating with us. She put out the word not only to her aides and friends not to cooperate, and we were lucky that some did, but she also had -- some of her people on her staff urged some senators not to talk to us, including Harry Reid. So I'm not at all surprised by Philippe's statement.

RUSSERT: Jeff Gerth, also -- supporters of Hillary Clinton say your wife is a foreign policy adviser for Chris Dodd, and that's a conflict of interest, because he's running against Senator Clinton, and you shouldn't be authoring a book against one of Senator Dodd's opponents.

From the June 12 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now:

ZAHN: Yeah, very quickly in closing, Taylor Branch, a famous author, who happens to be a very good friend of Bill Clinton's, says that your notion of this project is nuts -- that he is close to the president, the president has never admitted to anything like that. He thinks you're pretty much making this up.

GERTH: Well, we had two people who told us this story on the record. They heard it from Taylor Branch in Aspen, Colorado, at a barbecue dinner at a rodeo. And I called Taylor Branch, and he didn't remember the dinner. Now he says he remembers not saying this particular conversation. And I'll add he is a respected historian, but he's also admitted that when it comes to Bill Clinton, he can't be objective.

ZAHN: Well, it looks like at least half of the project they talked about was committed to and delivered upon.

GERTH: Maybe more. Maybe more.

ZAHN: Jeff Gerth, Don Van Natta Jr., thank you.

GERTH: Thanks very much.

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