Former presidents and those who worked with them have much to teach future generations about the presidency that did not make news and did not get recorded in the documents sent to the presidential library. A former White House Chief of Staff recently observed that in light of increasing demands for information from Congress, he "stopped writing anything down" and "didn't keep any written notes." Too often in the past, what they have to teach has been lost for lack of means to record it while they lived. The Presidential Oral History Program is a public service endeavor to provide such means and to preserve the true voices of past presidencies for posterity.
We invite members of former presidential administrations to spend a day or two of quiet time with scholars reviewing and reflecting on their experiences in office for the benefit of generations to come. These sessions are intended to capture for the permanent historical record a picture of each presidency seen through the eyes of those who knew it from the inside and drawn in their own words after the constraints of incumbency are over. Our interviews set out to examine the contemporary presidency from a diversity of perspectives: from those who worked inside the administration, from key associates outside the executive branch, and from select members of Congress. Future practitioners as well as students of politics and policy at the presidential level should therefore find much of interest in this record. The transcripts provide an important complement – and corrective – to the picture of a presidency as it was seen by outside observers and the public during incumbency. They also serve as a valuable complement to the documentary record by providing personal testimony that illuminates the contexts in which the documents were written, the thinking of those who wrote them, and the nature of their relationships with those who received them.
Accordingly our approach, first developed in the Center's 1981–85 interview study of the Carter White House, differs from traditional interview practice in several respects. Rather than concentrating on a particular personality, issue or type of activity, we endeavor to cover in our interview program all the key actors in the administration together with the important issues and activities in which they were involved. Rather than one-on-one interviews, our interviews are normally conducted by teams of three or four scholars in several sessions over a two-day period. Respondents are given the option of inviting one or more former assistants to join them at the interview table. They are also encouraged to identify in advance the topics they consider most important to cover in the interview. Rather than Q&A sessions, the interviews may be likened to seminars in which former officials are teachers about the presidency in which they served and interviewers are students who want to have a better understanding of that presidency than is likely to be gained from news stories, memoirs, or public documents alone. To assist interviewees as well as interviewers in preparing for the interview, a briefing book and reading materials compiled by Center researchers, together with a suggested agenda of topics, are distributed in advance.
Interviews are conducted in strict privacy under ground rules intended to ensure confidentiality and encourage candid discussion. The sessions are audiotaped. After review by the respondents, transcripts are deposited in the appropriate presidential library and at the Miller Center's Scripps Library in Charlottesville to be used for research and educational purposes. Such use is subject to restrictions that an individual respondent may choose to place on the disclosure of his or her remarks made in the transcript.
Formerly the purview of presidential libraries, today the Miller Center is the only institution taking on this work in a comprehensive way. The Presidential Oral History Program began in 1981 with a path-breaking history of the Carter presidency. From 1981 to 1985, thirty-five leading presidential scholars conducted interviews with over fifty members of the Carter White House, including President Carter himself, creating a valuable resource for students of his presidency. In 1999, the Center began the George H.W. Bush Oral History Project which, now nearing completion, consists of roughly 425 hours of recorded interviews with cabinet members, top-level staffers, transition aides, and campaign advisors. In 2001, the Center began projects on the Ronald Reagan and William J. Clinton presidencies. The Reagan Project, released in January 2006, contains forty-five interviews with friends and colleagues most closely involved in Reagan's political career. The Clinton Project, launched in conjunction with the University of Arkansas Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, is the largest presidential oral history project to date, with more than fifty interviews already completed and a final product estimated to include nearly 200 interviews. Together, these projects have created the single largest archive of presidential oral history interviews now in existence.
Our program portfolio also includes topical oral histories focused on particular issues and events and on institutional developments of singular importance in contemporary presidential history. In June 2002 and May 2003, the Miller Center, in conjunction with the Institute of Contemporary British History, organized a roundtable discussion on the Falklands War with key members of the Reagan administration, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and other top-level officials. In September 2003, the Center sponsored the White House Congressional Affairs Symposium, featuring seven former White House congressional liaisons, representing each administration from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. The Center also conducted a three-day biographical oral history on Lloyd Cutler, covering the major events in the life and times of this distinguished public servant. In December 2004, the Center launched the Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project, a six-year, comprehensive look at Senator Kennedy's life and career in the United States Senate.