WASHINGTON — I have been defamed by Taylor Branch, and he will not reply to my repeated calls for clarification. The defamation takes place in his new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. The defamation he printed comes from the Boy President himself, so perhaps my reputation will emerge immaculate. By now I think it is pretty clear to all Americans that Clinton tells the truth only when he misspeaks.
Branch’s book is a very personal chronicle of the Clinton Administration based on taped interviews Branch conducted with Clinton in the White House over Clinton’s two terms and prefatory to Branch’s assisting Clinton in writing his sloppy memoir. Branch’s problem is that he artlessly has accepted everything that Clinton told him, even on those occasions when Branch was nearby and should have recognized that Clinton was bathing him in absurdity. The book’s treatment of me is such an occasion.
It involves my by now well-documented encounter with Clinton at the Jockey Club not far from the White House July 17, 1995. I was dining with my 14-year-old daughter, Annie, and one of her girlfriends when the Clintons came in with fifteen friends to dine behind a partition in the restaurant’s back room. Branch and his wife were with them. As the Washington Post reported with the utmost accuracy, I sent over a couple of bottles of champagne, for the sight of this big lovable lug of a president always puts me in a good mood.
“Next thing you know,” reported the Post, “Clinton, the ever affable [obviously a trait we share], is having the champagne donor come back to meet and thank him.” Unfortunately we disagreed on a recent piece of mine from The American Spectator. After characterizing the 42nd President’s response as “ballistic,” the Post reported me as sympathizing: “I didn’t want to disturb his meal. I had to break off; he was getting worked up.”
Now here is how the oblivious Branch reports the incident. Clinton came over to him and “whispered, leaning over,” ‘Did you see that?'” Branch said no. Nonetheless he dutifully records Clinton’s version of our encounter: “Emmett Tyrrell, publisher of The American Spectator [actually I am editor-in-chief], had slipped through the partition to ask whether Clinton had read his new article, ‘The Arkansas Drug Shuttle….'” Branch describes the piece as one that “vouched for the most lurid anti-Clinton fantasies in circulation, about how the former governor had nurtured a drugs-and-murder CIA ring from the airport in Mena, Arkansas.” Where poor Branch got that interpretation of the piece I do not know. Probably he took Clinton’s word for it.
Had Branch read the piece he would have never seen anything about a “drugs-and-murder CIA ring.” All the piece reports is that Clinton encouraged one of his state troopers to do contract work for CIA during which the trooper discovered that another contract worker, the pilot flying arms from Mena into Central America, was bringing back cocaine. After he reported this to Governor Clinton, the trooper claims Clinton quipped as though he were aware of the trafficking. Possibly Clinton was just B.S.-ing, as he often does and really knew nothing about the drug trafficking. If so he opened himself up to a greater controversy than merely being aware of a CIA arms operation out of his state.
Clinton’s lies often get him in trouble, as those familiar with the scandals of his presidency know. That night at the Jockey Club, Branch reports, Clinton went on “gasping” that “Tyrrell had brought two young teenage girls with him like shields, which made it hard to fend him off.” Well, fending off intruders at a presidential meal is something the Secret Service does very well. Obviously the Post‘s report is accurate. I was invited over by Clinton. He bounded across the room, and I immediately introduced him to my daughter and her friend, whereupon he talked about his daughter’s trip to camp. “Shields,” indeed — actually Clinton had invited them over too.
One would think that Branch, who by 1995 had been with the President frequently, would have understood one does not breach a Secret Service barrier. Why make me out to be a boor in an episode that is so patently absurd? Moreover, why mischaracterize a magazine piece that any curious reader can see has been mischaracterized? Is Taylor Branch (sounds like an upscale bourbon, no?) a willing accomplice with Clinton in defaming a Clinton critic, or is he another of Clinton’s episodic apologists, whom the ex-President uses for his own purposes? I believe the latter, and I shall commiserate with him if ever he returns my telephone calls. But Branch’s readers should beware. This book is very unreliable.