There have been White House recordings of one sort or another since Franklin Roosevelt, but the secret systems that taped phone conversations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Oval Office meetings of Richard Nixon have been dismantled. A fear of investigations and subpoenas means presidents worry about being able to keep a diary private.
"The records preserved in presidential libraries are getting more voluminous but less personal," Branch says. "There's a mountain of paper, but it's really hard to tell what happened."
After the 1972 campaign, Clinton and Branch didn't speak to one another for 20 years. Clinton was building a political career in Arkansas; Branch was researching and writing a history of the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968.
Clinton had read Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63— even the footnotes, many of them crediting records from presidential libraries. As president-elect, he asked Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to put Branch and his wife, Christy Macy, on the guest list for a glittering dinner party Graham hosted. There, Clinton pulled Branch aside for a brief conversation.
His question: How could he be sure his presidency had records that would give historians a similar window into what was going on behind the scenes?
Branch says the two conferred several times about it during the administration's opening months. Clinton proposed Branch fill the role Arthur Schlesinger Jr. played in the Kennedy administration, a sort of court historian on the White House staff. Branch declined. Clinton tried dictating a diary but found it unwieldy; he said he needed to be interacting with someone.
In September 1993, Branch agreed to do oral history interviews with Clinton until the president could train someone on his staff for that role. No one else was ever trained, and their sessions continued until Clinton left office in 2001.
The president was determined to keep them secret to avoid what he saw as inevitable demands for disclosure.
"I was constantly wrestling with, 'What is my job?' " Branch says. "Basically, my first goal was to say, 'This is about history. … I want to get as much raw material on the record as possible.' But it was never that simple."
Branch was there as a historian but he also was a friend, and Clinton at times would seek his advice. From 1998 to 1999, Branch's wife worked at the White House as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. As Bill Clinton finished his memoirs, he surprised Branch with a $50,000 "bonus" for his help in laying the groundwork for them.
Publication of Branch's book has underscored the conflicting agendas of friend and historian.
Clinton on several occasions had encouraged Branch to write a book about their sessions, albeit at some undesignated point in the future. The author used the advance he received from the publishing house Simon & Schuster to have his own tapes transcribed; he had stored them in a safe deposit box at a bank.
Those tapes will be available to researchers next year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.