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.”
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.
Over the years, Young developed a warm relationship with Kennedy and his wife, Vicki. “He would be all business during the interview, but afterwards, it was ‘let’s have lunch, let’s talk,’” he said. The two men were close in age and shared a fascination with history.
Their recorded conversations ended abruptly in 2008 when Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor that would ultimately lead to his death in 2010.
In those intervening months, Young says, Kennedy’s priorities were spending time with his family and managing his treatment. Kennedy also turned his attention to his own memoir, “True Compass.” That book relied heavily on the transcripts that Miller Center researchers provided, and Kennedy noted in the book’s acknowledgements that his own project began with Young and the center’s work.
The Other Commonwealth That the project is being done in the foothills of central Virginia, instead of in the Brahman environs of Boston is surprising to many. Kennedy’s ties to the University of Virginia are few. Though he and his brother Bobby graduated from its law school, he is more associated with his undergraduate alma mater, Harvard.
But the Miller Center’s oral histories — it has either finished or is in the process of completing histories of the past five presidents — are what attracted Kennedy. The researchers had already made inroads in Washington, and the overlapping circles between Kennedy and President Bill Clinton meant that the center had already been in touch with some of the key players.
Young also believes that Kennedy was concerned that outsiders might interpret Kennedy’s participation in the project as an attempt to spin history by writing it himself. “He worried people might see this as another Kennedy whitewash,” Young says. Choosing an institution to which he had little affiliation helped insulate the project from critics who see cronyism in every Kennedy move.
But doing an oral history on a Senator was a new venture for the center, which had previously exclusively focused on the executive branch. For Kennedy, though, it made an exception. “If anyone merited a departure from the presidency, it was Kennedy, in part because of his family’s relationship with the institution,” Riley says.