To learn, he listened

James Sterling Young ’49 with President Barack Obama in 2010
James Sterling Young ’49 with President Barack Obama in 2010
AP Images/The White House/Pete Souza

Oct. 14, 1927 – Aug. 8, 2013

In the hours and hours of oral-history interviews that James Sterling Young ’49 recorded with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, there are more than their two voices on the tape — and there’s more than just talking. Kennedy brought his Portuguese water dogs to one session, and they barked into Young’s microphone. And when Kennedy was answering Young’s questions about his nine races for the U.S. Senate, Kennedy, like any good Irish tenor, burst into song, performing all-but-forgotten campaign ditties.

A historian who first focused on the nation’s early history, Young went on to establish the country’s only program devoted to compiling oral histories about the presidency; they are housed at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, where he joined the faculty in 1978. He presided over about 400 interviews and directed oral-history projects on presidents Jimmy Carter through George W. Bush. Studiously nonpartisan, Young toasted Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton “with equal vigor and sincerity,” says former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, director of the Miller Center.

Though most of the presidents did not sit for their own oral histories, Young believed there were lessons to be learned from the advisers and assistants who had fought the policy battles for their bosses. Sometimes he assembled panels of scholars to interview Cabinet members and adversaries. He was not one to pry, but he could ask tough questions, softened by his Georgia accent and his unhurried approach — he was, after all, not a journalist rushing to a deadline but a scholar who knew that his audience was mainly other historians. Baliles says that something else in Young’s background shaped the way he paced the questioning: His experience as a talented amateur pianist had made him a disciplined listener. “‘You can learn by listening’ is what he said,” Baliles recalls, “and then he quoted LBJ — you can’t learn if you’re not listening.”

The Kennedy project was an expansion of Young’s oral-history work on the presidency. Kennedy never occupied the Oval Office, but he was a major figure in Washington for nearly 50 years, from the moment he was elected to the Senate in 1962. At Kennedy’s request, Young conducted 280 interview sessions with more than 150 subjects, including 29 with Kennedy himself. Kennedy later used transcripts from Young’s interviews as the backbone of his autobiography, True Compass. Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, says the conversations with Young “changed the nature of Teddy’s memoir.” The book “was very, very open and very, very personal,” she says, “and that is absolutely because of the relationship he struck with Jim Young.”

Young also struck up a relationship with Kennedy’s dogs, but did not let them interfere with the interviews. Not wanting historians reading the transcripts to think that Kennedy’s reprimands of “bad boy” were meant for him, Young leaned into the microphone and provided the oral-history equivalent of stage directions: “We’re going to have to be careful to note where he’s talking to the dogs.”

James Barron ’77 is a reporter at The New York Times.