Gerth grasps for evidence to support book's claim of longtime plan for Hillary Clinton presidency

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS & KATHLEEN HENEHAN

On the June 10 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., authors of Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown & Co.), about the claim in their book that, in the 1970s, Bill and Hillary Clinton developed a 20-year "secret pact of ambition" -- which initially included a Bill Clinton presidency and was allegedly expanded after he assumed the presidency in 1993 to include "eight years as president for him, then eight years for" Hillary Clinton. Russert noted that the purported source for Gerth and Van Natta's allegation regarding the updated "plan" -- historian Taylor Branch -- had labeled the authors' claim "preposterous." In his response, Gerth first cited Ann Crittenden and John Henry, who he said relayed to him a conversation the two said they had with Branch in 1993 in which Branch purportedly disclosed the alleged plan for both Clintons to become president. Gerth then invoked former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, the authors' source for the Clintons' original "plan": "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." But when Russert challenged Gerth by noting that the "project" Panetta purportedly described to the authors "was never about Hillary," Gerth answered: "No, but Bill Clinton, of course, at that point in the 1970s, even before they married, was talking about that Hillary Clinton, that she could be president but she had to subordinate her plans, of course, to his coming to Arkansas."

However, this anecdote -- a similar version of which appears in Bill Clinton's autobiography, My Life (Knopf, 2004) -- in no way supports Gerth and Van Natta's disputed claim that, after Bill Clinton became president in 1993, the Clintons revised their "20-year project" to include eight years as president for Hillary.

In My Life, Bill Clinton wrote that "I thought coming to Arkansas with me would end the prospect of a political career for her":

I was happy to be going home to the prospect of interesting work, but I still didn't know what to do about Hillary, or what was best for her. I had always believed she had as much (or more) potential to succeed in politics as I did, and I wanted her to have the chance. Back then, I wanted it for her more than she did, and I thought coming to Arkansas with me would end the prospect of a political career for her. I didn't want to do that, but I didn't want to give her up, either. [Page 201]

As Media Matters noted, in a June 4 appearance on ABC's Good Morning America, Gerth and Van Natta dodged questions about Branch's reported dismissal of their claim in the book of an updated "20-year project,", with Gerth simply responding 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 (that the purported "20-year project" had been expanded to include a two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton).

In the prologue of Her Way, Gerth and Van Natta write:

More than three decades ago, 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.14Once 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.15Their audacious pact has remained a secret until now.

While their plan was hatched together, Hillary had her own ideas about what it would take to achieve victory. She concluded that if she had any chance of winning the ultimate prize of her life, she would need to pursue it her way. That meant, among other things, carefully crafting a persona and a narrative to present to the American public that knew both so much and so little about her. [Page 9]

Associated endnotes:

14. Interviews with Leon Panetta and former Clinton administration official in 2006.

15. Author interviews with Ann Crittenden and John Henry in 2007.

Later in the book, Gerth and Van Natta write:

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"72 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. 73 [Pages 128-129]

Associated endnotes:

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 writing his own book on Bill's presidency.

72. Julie Bosman, "Historian Plans Book from Chats with Clinton," New York Times, March 22, 2007, El; author interview with Taylor Branch in 2007. Bill Clinton, in his autobiography, says the oral history project began in late 1993. (Clinton, My Life, ii.)

73. Author interview with John Henry in 2007.

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

RUSSERT: And we're back with the authors of Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Welcome both. 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 that 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,' [and that] '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 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, he 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 is an award winning journalist -- two people who say yea, and Taylor Branch says nay. 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, but it was never about Hillary.

GERTH: No, but Bill Clinton, of course, at that point in the 1970s, even before they married, was talking about that Hillary Clinton, that she could be president but she had to subordinate her plans, of course, to his coming to Arkansas.

Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Jeff Gerth, Don Van Natta Jr.
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
Stories/Interests
Gerth and Van Natta's "Her Way", Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.