Taylor Branch says he has been surprised by at least one thing since the publication of his latest book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President. • "I didn't expect so much interest in Boris Yeltsin in his underpants." • The anecdote about the underdressed Russian premier making a tipsy midnight foray onto Pennsylvania Avenue in search of pizza during a visit to the White House is just one of the behind-the-scenes stories Branch tells in the book. It's a unique work, what Branch calls "raw evidence, not judgment" about the Clinton presidency.
"There's no precedent for this," he says, "especially with a sitting president, at his initiative." The unprecedented situation was Bill Clinton's request, not long after his inauguration in 1993, that Branch become a kind of personal historian, joining him at the White House to help him record a journal of his presidency.
The two had become friends 20 years earlier while working on George McGovern's presidential campaign but had been out of touch since. Branch had become a distinguished historian; Parting the Waters, the first of his three books about Martin Luther King Jr., won a Pulitzer Prize.
Clinton, Branch says, was eager to have a detailed record of his experiences for his presidential library and as a source for his memoirs. "I was interested in presidential history, and he was interested in being president."
So, for eight years, Branch would be summoned from his home in Maryland, usually late at night, and spend two or three hours at the White House, using his own notes about recent news events to prompt Clinton's recollections. Clinton kept the tapes (in his sock drawer, it turned out), but on the way home Branch would record his own notes about their conversations, and those notes became the book.
One of the most striking qualities of The Clinton Tapes is the almost overwhelming torrent of subjects and information the two talked about in each session.
Branch says he sometimes found it overwhelming, too. "I sort of thought a president could be above all those things, he could choose what he wanted to pay attention to. But by choice or by necessity, he was living with all of it all the time.
"That's what the presidency is like. It's this bombarded state of siege, and even someone as smart as him had trouble keeping up with it."
Branch says he sometimes dealt with conflicts between his various roles. "Was I a gatherer of oral history or a friend? What do you do when he asks you for your opinion?"
Branch says when Clinton asked he would give an opinion. "And sometimes he would say, 'Well, that's why you write history. You don't know anything about being in politics.' "
During Clinton's terms in office, only a handful of people knew about the tapes he and Branch were making. The two had a tacit agreement that Branch would write a book eventually, but not until after Clinton published his own memoirs.
"I didn't finish my last King book until 2006," Branch says, "and when it was done I looked up and Clinton's (first) memoir had been out for two years, and he'd been out of office for five years."
Branch calls writing the King books "a marathon that took 21 years; this one was a sprint, just two years."
The writing process and the structure of the book were very different, too. "I'd never written about myself before, but I felt I had to find a way to bring readers into the room. Otherwise you start every paragraph with 'He said.'
"It becomes a two-person play. One of them is you, which is uncomfortable, and the other is the president of the United States. How do you balance that? Why would anyone be interested in me?"
Although he could have used the material he gathered selectively, Branch says he felt it would be more valuable to future historians in relatively unfiltered form. "I wanted to preview or transmit this raw material. I wanted to give readers a kind of portrait of him and give them some sense of what it was like to be there."
Some of the reaction to the book has been predictable, he says. "Campbell Brown said to me on her show, 'You know people are going to go right to the index looking for that one word: Lewinsky.' I knew if I didn't have it in there, people would say, 'Why is he trying to hide it?' "
Branch says he found out about Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky the same way most people did: on the news. But his book does record the complexities of Clinton's response and the surprising political consequences.
Although Clinton read the book before it was published, Branch says he hasn't heard from him since it came out. "These days he hangs out with billionaires, pursuing his Global Initiative."
The unique situation that led to The Clinton Tapes won't happen again, Branch says. "But I think he and I will always have that connection.