Russell Riley

Professor and Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program

Fast Facts

Areas Of Expertise

  • Leadership
  • Political Parties and Movements
  • Politics
  • The Presidency

Professor Russell Riley, co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program, is the White Burkett Miller Center Professor of Ethics and Institutions. He is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on elite oral history interviewing and the contemporary presidency. He has logged more than 1,500 hours of confidential interviews with senior members of the White House staff, cabinet officers, and foreign leaders back to the days of the Carter and Reagan Administrations. Since 2003, he has led both the William J. Clinton Presidential History Project and the George W. Bush Oral History Project. He has lectured extensively on American politics and oral history methods across the United States, as well as in China, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, Ireland, and the Netherlands, and by videoconference (for the US Department of State) at Al Quds and Najah Universities in the West Bank.

In 2003, Riley led the Center’s biographical oral history of Washington lawyer Lloyd N. Cutler. He organized and directed, also in 2003, a symposium of former leaders of the White House Congressional Affairs operation, and he helped to organize and carry out, in 2008, a symposium of former White House speechwriters, which was nationally televised on C-SPAN.

Riley graduated from Auburn University in 1983, where he received the Charles P. Anson Award as outstanding student of economics. He subsequently studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and then received his PhD from the University of Virginia, where he was a research assistant to James Sterling Young at the Miller Center. He subsequently taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown. He helped found Penn’s Washington Semester Program and from 1994 to 1998 was its resident director and a lecturer in American politics. From 1998 to 2000, he was a program director with the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies in Austria, where he organized week-long sessions on topics ranging from racial politics to the evolution of transatlantic relations in the post-Cold War world. He returned to the Miller Center in January 2001.

He has authored or edited six books, including Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History (Oxford, 2016); Bridging the Constitutional Divide: Inside the White House Office of Legislative Affairs (Texas A&M, 2010); and The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Inequality: Nation-keeping from 1861 to 1965 (Columbia, 1999). The last of those was a finalist for that year’s Neustadt Award as the best book on the presidency. His commentary on American politics has also appeared in The Washington Post, Politico, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and TIME.   


Russell Riley News Feed

Few people have risen to the presidency better prepared than Joe Biden. And yet, when he took the oath of office in January, he had exactly as much experience exercising presidential powers as the most inexperienced of his predecessors: none. 
The Hill
“First years are problematic for presidents,” says presidential historian Russell Riley of the University of Virginia. “There’s a tendency to a kind of innocent arrogance in the early part of an administration. You think that because you succeeded in winning the White House, your judgment is golden.”
Russell Riley The Christian Science Monitor
Home to the Presidential Oral Histories Project, the Miller Center has conducted comprehensive oral histories for every president since Jimmy Carter, with interviews for the two most recent administrations, those of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, still ongoing. Each one attempts to recreate life in the White House during that administration, “developing a portrait of the uncertainties, pressures and contingencies as they existed at the time,” as the program’s co-chair, Russell Riley, put it.
Russell Riley UVA Today
The history of American engagement in Afghanistan has taken on renewed importance with the fall of that country back to the Taliban. What decisions made by American policymakers led to this result? Was it inevitable, or were there missed opportunities that might have created the conditions for long-term success?
Based on their new edited volume, "The Presidency: Facing Constitutional Crossroads," Miller Center presidential scholars discuss the deep historical and constitutional context needed to understand the Trump era. Identifying key points at which the constitutional presidency could have evolved in different ways from the nation’s founding to today, these scholars will examine presidential decisions that determined the direction of the country.
Russell Riley Miller Center Presents
On December 20, just after arriving in the nation’s capital at Annapolis, Washington sent a note to the president of the Confederation Congress saying that he was there to resign his commission as commander-in- chief and wondering whether he should do so “in writing or at an audience.”