Reagan and FDR as never before

Reagan and FDR as never before

Miller Center scholars begin analyzing new batches of presidential tapes

In 1996, author William Doyle filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see whether any of President Ronald Reagan’s taped conversations could aid his research on the 1987 Iran-Contra Affair. It wasn’t until 2014 that those tapes were made public and we learned about the existence of audio recorded during Reagan’s calls with foreign heads of state.

“Reagan recorded conversations with foreign heads of state so he could generate accurate records, which would be especially valuable given the challenges of translating them into and from English,” said Marc Selverstone, director of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program. “The calls themselves came through the Situation Room switchboard, but only about three hours of tape exist because they routinely taped over previous conversations instead of preserving the audio of each.”

Each hour of recording requires approximately 100 hours of manpower transcribing and analyzing.

It’s a painstaking process. But thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Miller Center is now working with archivists at the Reagan Library to establish the scope of the taping and transcripts and to flesh out the details.

In addition, the Miller Center has received NHPRC funding to transcribe and analyze eight hours of recordings from the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency. 

“FDR recorded press conferences so that he could have an accurate record of what he said as a check against what journalists reported,” explained Selverstone. “His interest in generating a verbatim account stemmed from an episode in January 1939 in which he thought he had been misquoted.”

At times, FDR’s tape recorder remained on after the press conferences had finished, allowing us to hear his debriefing sessions with aides and telephone conversations thereafter.

Even though the technology was rudimentary at the time, the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings team is confident they will be able to render highly detailed and comprehensive transcriptions. Stay tuned for the findings.