On Rose, Gerth and Van Natta repeated discredited defense of alleged 1993 plan for Hillary Clinton presidency

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

On the July 6 edition of the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) Charlie Rose Show, authors Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. repeated their defense of the disputed claim in their book Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown & Co., June 2007) 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." When host Charlie Rose noted that the purported source of the story, historian Taylor Branch, "has denied it," both Gerth and Van Natta suggested that Branch originally told them that he "didn't remember" relaying this story to a married couple (whose secondhand account the authors cite in the book) "at a barbecue in Aspen, Colorado, in the summer of 1993." Gerth and Van Natta also claimed that Branch "wouldn't deny it happened" when they spoke to him during the writing of the book. However, as Media Matters for America noted, Branch claimed in a May 31 written statement that the authors "never told" him what he was "supposed to have said" to the couple and that what he "didn't deny" was dining with the couple in Aspen in 1993. Branch asserted that it was not until receiving advanced "proofs" of Her Way that he became aware of the substance of "a story attributed to me therein from the summer of 1993" and further stated he had "never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president."

As Media Matters 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. The authors attribute this claim to the disputed secondhand account of a conversation Branch allegedly had with former New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden and her husband, John Henry. A May 25 Washington Post article on the book quoted Branch describing the allegation regarding the Clintons as "preposterous," and saying, "I never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president."

During his July 6 interview with the authors, Rose noted that Branch "denied" the story, and Van Natta responded by claiming that when Gerth contacted Branch to "ask[] him" about the alleged conversation with Crittenden and Henry, Branch "didn't remember it," but "[h]e didn't deny it to us when we asked about it." Gerth added: "[W]hen we asked him about the dinner, he didn't remember the conversation. He said he wouldn't deny it happened. But he didn't remember it. And then, you know, now he says, you know, he didn't say this particular remark. It's a conversation that he had told us he couldn't remember."

In fact, Branch has claimed that what he denied remembering was "that I saw Ann Crittenden and John Henry in Aspen years ago," not the contents of the conversation. Indeed, according to Branch, "Mr. Gerth never told me what I am supposed to have said in the summer of 1993," therefore "[i]t is disingenuous for him to imply that I am 'not denying' the substance of his story." 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.

Branch's statement came in response to the following footnote in Her Way, which accompanies the allegation that Branch disclosed the Clintons' purported "plan" to Crittenden and Henry in 1993:

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.

As Media Matters has noted, while promoting Her Way, Gerth and Van Natta have defended the disputed allegation regarding Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions by similarly suggesting that Branch has contradicted himself on the issue.

From the July 6 edition of PBS' The Charlie Rose Show:

ROSE: You believe that they set out with, when he was governor, that he would -- they would eventually move national -- eventually run for president. He would run first and then she would run.

VAN NATTA: In the mid '70s, before they exchanged their marriage vows, they exchanged their political vows. Before they got married they decided -- these were just young people in their mid-20s living in Arkansas together. And they decided they were going to remake the Democratic Party and make Bill Clinton president within 20 years. It was a 20-year --

ROSE: Make it more of a centrist party?

VAN NATTA: Make it more of a centrist party. And remember, this came right after McGovern got trounced by Nixon. And they worked on that campaign, both Bill and Hillary, in Texas. And felt it, took it very personally. And they decided to make the party more centrist. And then after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, and in '93 when he was president, he told a friend that he wanted to serve two terms as president, which is not a surprise. Every first-term president does. But then Hillary was going to follow him as president for two terms.

ROSE: Who did he tell that to?

VAN NATTA: He told that to Taylor Branch, his personal historian.

ROSE: And Taylor has denied that.

VAN NATTA: Taylor has denied it. But Taylor Branch spoke to Jeff. And Jeff asked him about it. And Jeff can answer it better. But he didn't remember it. He didn't deny it to us when we asked him about it. He said -- Taylor Branch is one of Bill Clinton's best friends. And he said that he can't really be totally unbiased when it comes to Bill Clinton. But we quote two people on the record in the book who heard Taylor Branch say it.

ROSE: So what we have is Taylor Branch repeating the story.

GERTH: Right. So that two people who heard him say it, at a barbecue in Aspen, Colorado, in the summer of 1993. They each independently remembered it. And told the story to us. And then Taylor Branch, when we asked him about the dinner, he didn't remember the conversation. He said he wouldn't deny it happened. But he didn't remember it. And then, you know, now he says, you know, he didn't say this particular remark. It's a conversation that he had told us he couldn't remember. So -- but going back, Don didn't explain where this ambitious project came from and where we found it from. We found it out from Leon Panetta. Leon Panetta was on Air Force One in 1996. A game of hearts with the president. Near the end of the campaign, had been a long day, and Panetta asked President Clinton, "Why have you used Dick Morris all these years as your political consultant?" The controversial --

ROSE: He was in and out of favor with him.

GERTH: Right. Well, at that point Morris was gone. He had left the campaign over the tryst.

ROSE: The incident in Washington.

GERTH: The incident in Washington, very well put. And Bill Clinton's reply to Panetta was, "Well, you have to understand. Hillary and I had this 20-year project." Those are Bill Clinton's words. And then he went on to explain the project as Don --

ROSE: And what did he say?

GERTH: And he said that we, the project's goal was to reshape the Democratic Party and to capture the presidency, by him, within 20 years. And then he went on to explain why he had to use Dick Morris, because he needed someone, they needed someone because there was a joint project. They needed someone who understood their enemy. And Dick Morris, of course, worked for a lot of Republicans. And so this was how as Panetta described it to get to the dark side. And Dick Morris is sort of the ultimate, you know, the means justifies the ends. So you got to get down with the devil to get to your ultimate goal. And so we disclosed this in the book. It's based on Leon Panetta's on-the-record description, which has not been questioned, and we had another source as well and it's all spelled out in the book.

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