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Government professor interviews Reagan, Bush-era attorneys general

A New Mexico State University government professor has completed interviews with attorneys general for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush as part of a project by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia to compile comprehensive oral histories of presidential administrations.

Nancy Baker, an associate professor of government at New Mexico State University, has completed interviews with former attorneys general in the Reagan and Bush administrations as part of a project with the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

of a panel of scholars, Associate Professor Nancy Baker interviewed Edwin M. Meese, attorney general for Reagan from 1984 to 1988, Richard Thornburgh, attorney general for both Reagan and Bush from 1988 to 1991, and William P. Barr, attorney general for Bush from 1991 to 1993. The interviews occurred in three separate two-day sessions in April through October at the University of Virginia, Baker said.

The Miller Center is creating an archive of oral histories on recent administrations and plans to do the same for future administrations. Transcripts are made available to scholars after the subjects have approved the records of their sessions, she said.

Russell L. Riley, a research professor at the Miller Center, said the center's staff has interviewed 40 high ranking Bush officials, is now working on interviews of Reagan officials and will begin interviews of Clinton officials early next year.

Baker said different personalities create different sets of challenges for interviewers.

"You might have one person who's extremely affable and your interview could be conversational and light-hearted. The danger there is that interviewers can be sidetracked by the humor. You have to know when and how to lead the conversation back to specific issues and events," she said.

"Another person might be very polished, and even sympathetic to your project, but not given to providing direct answers to your questions. In that case, you have to consider if there is another way to get the information you're seeking. You might have to rephrase your question, then present it again," she said.

"I'm not comfortable being obsequious, but I don't think it's necessary. A lot of people want to tell their story. Particularly if they've had negative news stories in office, they may see this as the opportunity to correct the record," she said.

"Inevitably, there is the tendency to be self-serving and selective in their memory. That's human and I think you have to accept it as part of the process. The idea is that you gather enough interviews from enough different people that each sheds a little light. In the aggregate, you get some understanding of what occurred," she said.

The oral histories are important, she added, because of what they can reveal about the relationships and decision-making processes in each administration.

"Documentary records are limited in what they can tell us about the dynamics in an administration and, increasingly, administrations to do not keep documentary records about important decisions because of concerns about subpoenas," she said.

Riley said the Miller Center's staff usually does its own interviews, but when an area requires special knowledge they may contact outside scholars. They became aware of Baker through her published work, especially her 1992 book "Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the Attorney General's Office, 1789-1990," he said.

"We were very pleased to find someone so obviously well-prepared, as well as so temperamentally suited to the work, which requires a delicate balance between diplomacy and probing for information," he said.

Riley said the interview transcripts will eventually be made available to students and scholars, subject to the stipulations of each respondent.

"These provisions are in place to encourage candor in each interview," he said.