Charlottesville Virginia is the home of The Miller Center, a remarkable facility dedicated to sharing political history, wisdom, perspective, public policy, and presidential information. As we all know, historical ‘truth’ is in the eyes of the beholder, so the Miller Center invites prominent people from all sides of an issue to contribute their knowledge about politics and historical political activities in the U.S. The Center is loosely affiliated with the University of Virginia (building ownership etc) but they are non-partisan in their policies and goals.
One of my favorite projects from the Miller Center is their Presidential History Project. A part of that is their collection of extensive live interviews with former presidents regarding their opinions of national and international policies, historical happenings, and political events. Every administration from President Carter to President Bush has contributed firsthand oral interviews and documents that substantiate the historical and political decisions of their day. To encourage authentic recollections, the Center may offer the administration official to have his/her recollections sealed for a period of time, and they are interviewed separately so they give unbiased recollections. Interviews may last from hours to days.
But prior to President Carter, there was a period of American history where there were audio tapes and files of presidential speeches as well as tapes of various government meetings. Those are among the remaining sources of firsthand oral accounts from a presidential perspective. Some of those tapes are very old (from President Roosevelt’s era etc) and the sound quality is not good, but the Miller Center has experts who listen with special equipment to try to verify who was speaking and what was said. It’s not a casual thing. These experts sit in small rooms off of the main corridor of the building with ear sets, learning the cadence and nuances of each government official who might have attended the meeting where the tape was made a half a century ago. We were told that – ironically – after President Nixon’s tapes caused a national problem, in fact the audio tapes became less useful as a source of insider facts, as government workers learned not to commit to tape anything that could be controversial. Apparently as time has gone on, candid conversations are much harder to recapture.
If you are lucky enough to be a resident of the Charlottesville area, you will have the opportunity to attend the many public conferences and speakers series held at the Miller Center. It is like listening in on the best of intellectual public discourse. There is nothing like being in the same room as civic and politic leaders from all over the globe discuss their issues and historical insights of public policy and governance. The Center sponsors near 60 forums each year where high ranking officials discuss the presidential and policy issues in a debate series.
There is no other institution in the country that provides the type of scholarly investigation and open discussion of political history, civic obligations, and presidential policy that is conducted at the Miller Center. They are documenting political history from a database of gathered sources and unique recollections. In some places their work is relatively unknown but in Charlottesville it’s a treasured asset of the community. They provide a unique opportunity to learn the lessons of history. Here’s your link to find out more about the Miller Center.