During his eight years as president, Barack Obama demonstrated a keen appreciation for history. The nation’s first African American commander in chief used Abraham Lincoln’s Bible for his swearing-in on Inauguration Day. He quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt when making an address about Syria. He held regular White House dinners with prominent historians to glean lessons from the past.
Now some of the crucial work to cement his own legacy is about to begin.
On Thursday, the Obama Foundation and Columbia University will announce the creation of a massive oral history project for the Obama presidency. Over the next five years, the Columbia Center for Oral History Research will conduct and collect more than 400 interviews of people with insight into the 44th president’s life and administration.
Starting with Herbert Hoover, oral history projects have been conducted for every American president. Some have had the cooperation of the former president himself, as Obama’s will. Others were conducted after the president’s death or without explicit approval, as was the case with Richard M. Nixon.
Many of these oral history collections are housed in presidential libraries or academic institutions and provide biographers with richly detailed firsthand accounts from which to reconstruct Oval Office narratives.
How do we know Thurgood Marshall was surprised to receive Lyndon B. Johnson’s invitation to be on the Supreme Court? Marshall said so during an oral history interview about Johnson.
“The oral histories are where the anecdotal information from an administration lives,” says Douglas Brinkley, who relied heavily on oral histories of presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson when working on his new book, “American Moonshot,” about the space race. “The colorful aside, the off-trail story — they often don’t live on in official documents.”
Brinkley is one of several historians who will serve on the advisory committee for Obama’s oral history project. He says Obama was particularly impressed by the comprehensive approach of Kennedy’s oral history project, commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library after his assassination.
That collection now comprises about 1,300 interviews with family members, administration officials and cultural figures. Their memories provide a robust portrait of the Kennedy era.
“I was one of those historians who would see President Obama at the White House,” Brinkley says. “Obama reads biographies. He studies history. You’re dealing with a president who clearly understands the value for the historical record to get reminiscences.”
And so, in a unique move, the researchers for his oral history project will interview not only administration staffers and officials but also everyday Americans, including those who penned letters to the president.
“We get human stories — stories about who we are as a democracy,” says Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research. “We examine disagreement as well as agreement.”
The research center that Clark oversees is the oldest and largest oral history program in America. It was founded in 1948 by journalist-turned-historian Allan Nevins, who promoted the method of oral history as a means of augmenting the public historical record.
The center was created at Columbia under the leadership of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as the university’s president at the time. After his two terms in the White House, Eisenhower allowed the research center to collect the oral history of his presidency. In recent years, the center has spearheaded ambitious oral history projects about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and rule of law at Guantanamo Bay.
The interviews for Obama’s oral history will begin in July and are expected to take five years. A few of the interviews have already been completed, such as that of former senator Harry M. Reid, whose declining health prompted researchers to capture his reminiscences sooner.
In addition to collecting never-before-heard accounts about Obama’s time in Washington — his handling of the recession, the war on terror, climate change, civil rights — the project will also gather stories from his earlier life.
“It’s going to be one of the largest oral history projects that has ever been conceived for a president,” Brinkley says. “For anyone in the future writing on the Obama years, these will become invaluable.”
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