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The Miller Center hopes to have parts of the transcripts ready for the public this year. The interviews will be available online and the physical archive and research materials will be housed at the Miller Center’s Scripps Library and at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where the late Senator’s papers also will be archived.
Aside from the massive number of interviews conducted, such a project is time-consuming for a number of reasons. As is practice with any academic oral history collection, each interviewee is given the opportunity to read and edit their words, and they must sign their approval to release them.
They might strike some sensitive parts, or they might place conditions on them: For instance, their full statement might be released when the people referred to it are out of office, or dead, or in a set number of years. Obama’s interview, for example, likely will not be made public until he has left office.
All of that requires painstaking record-keeping.
And the interview process is exhaustive. A team of graduate students creates a research binder for each interview subject containing timelines, biographical material and press clippings. Interviewers use the book to prepare detailed questions. For the Kennedy project, Young often conducted interviews solo or with one or two others.
Sometimes, the interviewers are so steeped in their subject, they recall details the interviewees had forgotten. “It was a fascinating process,” says longtime Kennedy aide Jim Manley, who was interviewed for the project. “Once we got started, the memories started coming back really quickly, but by the end, I was kind of drained. It got a bit emotional at times.”
And although his job for many years was to make Kennedy look good, Manley felt he could be candid during the interview — it’s what his former boss wanted, he says.
Conversations With Kennedy
But as equipped as Young was for his conversations with Kennedy, he says the late Senator was every bit as prepared. Kennedy took the interviews seriously, doing meticulous homework to get ready for each. The two men developed a system where they would agree on a topic beforehand, sometimes a policy subject such as health care, education or immigration, and other times broader themes, such as civil rights or judicial nominations.
Kennedy would arrive at the interviews with a briefing book of his own, bulging with papers and records.
And as the sessions progressed, Young says, they built a rapport. Kennedy became less formal. He sang, told stories in which he mimicked Irish and Italian patois, and even played with his Portuguese water dogs, Splash and Sunny, during interviews.
“We’re going to have to be careful to note where he’s talking to the dogs,” Young says. Otherwise, history students might someday wonder why Kennedy called Young a “bad boy” or asked him to play fetch.
The two covered not just Kennedy’s public life, but his family and personal anecdotes, even the darker chapters. Young did not clear questions with Kennedy before they began the interviews, and he said the Senator only balked at some questions about his family. “He still wanted some privacy for them,” Young says.