Kennedy Unveils Oral History Project

Posted December 6, 2004 at 1:37pm

In the same room in the Russell Senate Office Building where his brothers announced their candidacies for president, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), flanked by colleagues of both parties, unveiled an ambitious plan to create an oral history chronicling his years in the Senate.

This oral history project — which will consist of a series of interviews with those close to Kennedy — will be run by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. The Miller Center has helped compile oral histories of the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Kennedy is the first Senator to be a subject.

In his introductory remarks, historian Michael Beschloss emphasized the importance of oral histories, saying that “people who are writing history have a difficult time filling in the blanks” when they rely solely on the written record.

Beschloss cited the example of Abraham Lincoln, noting that much “of what we know about Lincoln comes from the oral history” that his law partner created upon the president’s death.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), in his introduction of Kennedy, emphasized the importance of having a record for future generations to study. Frist recalled that when he was first considering a run for the Senate, he “went to the library” in order to study what it is like to be a Senator.

“Voices provide us more than the documents and books that we have,” Frist emphasized.

Kennedy, to a standing ovation, praised the efforts of the Miller Center, noting that oral histories “enable historians to probe in a more detailed way the motives, fears and vision of those who shape policy.”

As with other oral histories organized by the Miller Center, officials will not disclose the interview texts for at least six years. If an interviewee so wishes, he or she can keep their conversation on ice even longer, said the team leader of the project, Stephen Knott.

“The Senator himself won’t be reading any of the transcripts before the public will be able to,” Knott said. The purpose of these restrictions is to promote candor among those who participate.

Senators in attendance included Frist and Kennedy, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).