"He said he could have done worse," Branch writes. "He could have blown something up."
Sitting with Branch on the second floor of the White House, Clinton would rail against the news media and his Republican opposition for what he saw as pursuing the personal and the inconsequential rather than the substantive and important. At times he would admit that his own actions played a part in all that, especially in the Lewinsky affair, stoking the controversies that risked overshadowing everything else.
Branch, who kept a daily account of Clinton's schedule from news accounts, would set up two small recorders and pose questions he had written on a notepad, probing for details and insights beyond what was on the public record.
They often would meet in the Treaty Room but sometimes sat in the small family kitchen or on the Truman Balcony. In July 2000, during the Middle East peace negotiations, Branch was summoned for a session at the presidential retreat at Camp David.
Once done, Branch would rewind the tapes, label them and give them to Clinton. After several years, he learned the president was tucking them behind his socks in a chest of drawers, where they remained until he moved out of the White House.
Branch has never heard the tapes. Besides the president's scheduler, almost no one on the West Wing staff knew the interviews were taking place.
"I walked in on the two of them talking one night late in the residence and they both acted a little funny," remembers then-White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "A year later in the Chappaqua house, after he'd left the White House, I saw a box of tapes sitting out and asked the president what they were, and he told me they were the Taylor conversations."
There was a roller coaster quality to some of the evenings, Branch recalls. Clinton, often exhausted, was a study in multi-tasking. One interview in 1995 was interrupted by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher calling about air strikes in Bosnia; Clinton had been filling in a crossword puzzle and then began to deal a game of solitaire while continuing both conversations.
On the night of the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, the topics between Clinton and Branch included not only that catastrophe but also then-Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's appeal to win delivery of more F-16 fighter jets and the legislative strategy of the new GOP House speaker, Newt Gingrich.
Then Chelsea, the Clintons' daughter, hovered at the door. She was writing a paper for her sophomore English class to describe the best and worst qualities of Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's famous novel, but she couldn't make her points fit on a single page, as assigned.
"He's reading it, and then he asked me to read it and what did I think? And where could it be shortened?" Branch recalls. "I've got the tapes going and I'm wondering, 'Am I going to be able to get back to the stuff I'm supposed to be doing? And will historians of the future think I'm an idiot for getting sidetracked off of these things with the president of the United States to be critiquing this homework assignment on … Dr. Frankenstein?' "
From the beginning, the interviews were designed to provide Clinton's perspective on his presidency as it was happening.