James Sterling Young’s office is in a small outbuilding, once used as a guest cottage, behind a graceful antebellum mansion.
The setting is pastoral, with a green lawn and swaying tulips. But from this peaceful perch, Young has for years been immersed in another very different world, one of fierce battles waged in the Capitol’s ornate conference rooms and on the Senate floor.
Young is overseeing the oral history project being conducted by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, an effort devoted to collecting the memories and reflections of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and those who worked with him in his decades-long career in public service.
Kennedy’s life was big, and so the oral history chronicling it is, too. Young’s quest, which started in 2004, has taken him from Hyannisport, Mass., to Ireland and from the Capitol to the Oval Office. He has interviewed President Barack Obama, former prime ministers, lowly Congressional staffers, Senators and House Members, Republicans and Democrats.
He says what is emerging is precisely what the late Senator envisioned when he selected the Miller Center to handle the project. “It is both personal and institutional,” Young says. “Sen. Kennedy said to me, ‘Jim, this is not about me. It’s about the Senate and how it works. I don’t think people understand how our laws are made.’ He wanted it to be a teaching device.”
In Young’s modest office, located behind the grand home that now houses the Miller Center, a bookshelf holds dozens of binders, one for each interviewee. They tell the story of a remarkable undertaking: 280 interview sessions with around 150 to 160 subjects; 29 interviews, usually lasting from two to three hours, with Kennedy himself; and thousands of hours of tape to be transcribed and edited.
The project will cost somewhere in the “low seven figures,” for expenses such as paying research teams, renting facilities to conduct some interviews, travel, transcription and editing, estimates Russell Riley, chairman of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is picking up the tab.
The interviews are meant to serve as a record for future students of history and as a resource for others in public service. There are many lessons to draw from those who have weathered campaigns and policy fights, Young says, and those lessons are often best told in the words of the players themselves.
“So much of history is written from the ivory tower looking down, and it’s amazing how much is written about politics by people who have never met a politician,” Young says. “You get a much better feel for the human element and you get a much better understanding of the connection between the personalities and the choice-making.”