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Edward M. Kennedy, who has been a US senator since 1962, plans to raise $3.5 million to support an oral history project at the University of Virginia covering his years in the Senate.
Edward M. Kennedy, who has been a US senator since 1962, plans to raise $3.5 million to support an oral history project at the University of Virginia covering his years in the Senate. (Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer)

Oral history planned for Sen. Kennedy

WASHINGTON -- The Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia is to announce plans today to record an oral history of the life and career of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a six-year, multimillion-dollar project that is the center's first effort to chronicle the history of a sitting senator.

Kennedy, who suggested the project and will raise money to cover its $3.5 million cost, will sit for 75 hours of talks with the center, which also plans to interview more than 100 of the veteran senator's former and current staff members, colleagues from both sides of the aisle, family, and other notable figures who have known him.

While the center has completed an oral history of President Jimmy Carter and is completing similar projects for presidents George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, it has never made a senator the subject of a historical study. Kennedy will be able to provide insights into the presidency of his brother, John F. Kennedy.

Although the senator, who earned his law degree at the University of Virginia, will raise money to fund the project, he will not control who is interviewed or what questions are asked, said Stephen Knott, associate professor at the Miller Center.

Historians said they could not recall a case in which such an exhaustive project was undertaken for a senator, especially a sitting senator.

''This is very unusual. Even an important senator or president will write a memoir or do some interviews with a ghost writer, and that is basically it," said historian Michael R. Beschloss. But the oral history project Kennedy will participate in ''is just the way an historian would like to see it done -- without fear or favor," he said.

Kennedy said the project does not presage the close of his 42-year Senate career. He intends to run for a ninth term in 2006, he said.

''I'll make an announcement" for the 2006 candidacy, but ''I don't think there's any question in my mind what I'll be doing," Kennedy said in an interview. He said the oral history will provide the public with ''a firsthand opportunity for the discussion of insights into how legislation is made. I love history, and I think people understand the new role that these oral histories have in understanding the issues, and the times, and the people who were involved in these issues."

Kennedy said he expected to be interviewed on a variety of topics, including civil rights, education, healthcare, foreign affairs, and his perspectives on the many presidents he has known.

The project will also touch on the senator's sometimes rocky personal and family life, Knott and others said. While the questions have not been written yet, historians said they expect that the center would address the Chappaquiddick episode and other nonpolicy-related matters.

''The way we've approached it is that nothing is off-limits. The study is going to cover the whole of his life, including his pre-Senate years and up to the present," Knott said. While the center usually chronicles presidential lives, Kennedy's oral history will augment the stories of presidents who have served during the career of the 72-year-old senator, he said.

''This is a first for us, but Senator Kennedy's career coincides with a number of the people whose histories we have already done," Knott said. ''In many ways, it fits within our mission, which is to conduct oral histories of people who govern the United States."

The interviews will probably be purely audio, though some may be videotaped, Knott said, and will be available on the Miller Center's website and at its Scripps Library after the project is completed. Interviewees may negotiate the terms of the release of their comments; for example, they may ask that certain portions of their interviews not be made public until after their deaths. Knott said the center hoped to release every tape without restriction, but said some people interviewed, especially Kennedy adversaries now serving with him in Congress, might be more candid if they knew their remarks would not be made public until later.

Oral histories are especially useful to historians because contemporary politicians do not have the extensive paper trails left by those who lived in the days before telephones and e-mail, said Donald A. Ritchie, the US Senate historian. ''It's not like the 19th century, when Henry Clay would write a five-page letter," he said.

Such recordings also help historians wade through the paper that does exist, Ritchie said, assisting them in finding those documents the public figure felt were especially important.

''Senator Kennedy has probably created several tractor trailers of paper while he's been here, more than any historian could read," Ritchie said. ''Historians describe oral histories as a road map. . . . What worked and what didn't work. Without that, you're really at sea."

Adam Clymer, author of ''Edward M. Kennedy: a Biography," called the project ''a terribly valuable thing" that will aid future historians. Kennedy cooperated with Clymer on his book, and Clymer donated his papers and interviews to the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester.

Kennedy came up with the idea of doing an oral history a couple of years ago and asked a personal friend, Lee Fentress, to explore potential historical research centers to conduct the project. Fentress considered academic centers at Columbia University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of North Carolina before settling on the Miller Center because of its ''extraordinary collections of historians and scholars" and its reputation for doing in-depth interviews, Fentress said.

The center was especially excited about telling Kennedy's story because of the perspective the senator's interviews could add to the other presidential oral histories the Miller Center is doing, Fentress said. ''If there were 500 or 600 pieces of the puzzle out there on the issues of the day at that time, Senator Kennedy was probably involved in 150 of those issues," he said.

Despite the many books, articles, and movies that deal with the Kennedy family, the senator's interviews will probably reveal new information or anecdotes, Knott and others said. And while Kennedy will have no control over the final product, his heavy involvement gives him an unusual opportunity to help shape his own place in history, something he has not been able to do when others wrote books and movies about his family.

Kennedy said he would discuss ''missed opportunities" as well as accomplishments. For example, Kennedy said, he has wondered whether Democrats should have taken a rare opportunity during the Nixon administration to accept Nixon's national healthcare proposal. While many Democrats believed the plan was flawed, it may have been better to sign onto it, given that decades later, the nation still has more than 40 million uninsured people, Kennedy said.

''I'll have to go back and look at whether we should have jumped on that. Did we make a mistake waiting?" Kennedy said. 

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