The former president had planned to use the interviews he had given when he wrote his book, but there is little sign he did. As he neared the deadline to submit his manuscript in 2004, he invited Branch to Chappaqua to read the first 700 pages. Branch was stunned to find that with only a month or two to go until his deadline, Clinton was just beginning to write about his time in the White House.
In one of their few arguments, Branch urged him to delay publication or split the memoir into two volumes — one now, a second later. Clinton refused. In the end, My Life "skims the surface" of his presidency like a hovercraft, Branch says.
For historians wanting to plunge into the Clinton presidency, the unprecedented interviews will be invaluable, says Russell Riley, head of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. He calls their existence "a major historical event," though Clinton hasn't said when and under what conditions they might be available to scholars.
"There is a poverty of original-source accounts of what truly is happening in the White House (because) people are afraid to put things down on paper," Riley says. The recordings "hold a great deal of promise for us in getting a better picture of at least what President Clinton's mentality and understanding were at critical moments of his presidency."
He likens it to the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes from black-and-white Kansas to full-color Oz: "The richness of the portraiture of what you're seeing around you and the way it engages your senses about history are profoundly enhanced."