July 12-25, 2002
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Q&A -- Zelikow relishes Miller Center’s role

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Philip Zelikow was named director of U.Va.’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and White Burkett Miller Professor of History four summers ago. Initially a Texas trial and civil rights lawyer, he taught for the Department of the Navy before serving as a career diplomat in the State Department and on the staff of the National Security Council in the first Bush White House. He was a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1991 until 1998.

Among the highlights of his U.Va. tenure thus far has been serving as executive director of the bipartisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-sponsored by the center and overseen by former presidents Carter and Ford. Zelikow is also one of two general editors, with Ernest May, of the center’s Presidential Recordings Project, which is transcribing thousands of hours of telephone conversations and meetings secretly recorded by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
Kimberley Girard recently sat down with Zelikow to discuss the state of the Miller Center.

Zelikow relishes Miller Center’s role

By Kimberly Girard

Q: How would you define the Miller Center’s mission and its relationship to the rest of the University?

A: In a broad sense, the University’s mission is to gather knowledge and share it. The Miller Center tries to do both. It gathers knowledge, with a special emphasis on the national and international policies of the United States, concentrating on the American presidency. It is the premier center for basic research on the American presidency and the related contemporary political history of the United States.

But we also share knowledge. We share it in providing one of the outstanding public affairs speaker series to be found in this part of America. We also share it through a magazine, the Miller Center Report, and through a television show, “For The Record,” that we help produce and is syndicated nationally, featuring speakers often overlapping with the kind of speakers that we include in our forum program. And, of course, we try to publish research, not only the fruits of our own basic research program, but also important interpretive efforts, like our support for Bill Miller’s recent book, Lincoln’s Virtues, which has received well-deserved acclaim.

Q: Can you highlight at least two of the Miller Center’s key accomplishments?

A: I’m very proud that the center has built a strong foundation for doing basic research on the presidency. We now are an authoritative center for the most important basic research on that institution now under way. I’m proud of that.
I’m also proud of the center’s efforts to inform and affect contemporary policy deliberations on matters where we can bring some expertise to bear. Because of the center’s reputation and credibility as a bipartisan and nonpartisan center, we have organized nine national commissions that have made recommendations on how to address key institutional problems in the workings of the presidency and its relations with other branches of government. Most recently, the Miller Center sponsored the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former presidents Carter and Ford. The commission produced a report to the American people that was endorsed in the Rose Garden last year by President George W. Bush. The report formed the basis for legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives last December. [Since this interview was conducted, the Senate passed a similar bill. The bills are now before a conference committee.]

Q: What were your goals in forming the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, and what, in your mind, would constitute a successful reaction to the commission’s recommendations?

Jimmy Carter and Philip Zelikow
Photo by Tom Cogill
Zelikow, right, with former President Jimmy Carter, who co-chaired the center’s election reform task force.

A: To put it simply, our goal was to keep Florida from ever happening again. It was to figure out how the United States should provide, for the first time in the history of the republic, a truly national framework for organizing our national elections. Our elections are principally administered by state and county governments. The federal role is to provide a national framework for the exercise of that responsibility. We don’t want to move the responsibility from the state level to the federal level, but there needs to be a federal role in setting broad national standards that states will interpret according to local needs.

So we think we came up with a set of recommendations that enjoyed bipartisan agreement, which was essential. We think those recommendations, if adopted, would keep Florida, or anything like it, from ever happening again. They would restore trust in the way our elections are administered. They would modernize the infrastructure of democracy that we hold out as a model to the world.

We would define success as the adoption of those recommendations by the federal government or the adoption of particular recommendations that we made to state governments. We think we’re enjoying success on both accounts.

Q: What present or upcoming projects are you focusing on now?

A: The center is steadily pursuing its historical work, especially in the Presidential Recordings Project and the Presidential Oral History project. The latter works with recent presidents to document the history of their administrations through recording the recollections of all of their top officials. The center is also turning to other contemporary problems, especially in the realm of homeland security.

Q: Do you have any ideas for increasing student participation in, or awareness and understanding of, the Miller Center programs?

A: We’ve been actively publicizing our events on Grounds and working with leading student organizations, such as the debating societies and the International Relations Organization, to help persuade students to visit the North Grounds and take advantage of some of the opportunities for them here.

We employ a number of students, both undergraduate and graduates, in our research efforts. Further, we sponsor a national fellowships program that each year solicits applications to select the most promising graduate work in public policy and political institutions. We award interdisciplinary fellowships to the most deserving scholars selected by that competition. These fellowships have been especially beneficial to a number of graduate students at the University of Virginia.
Miller Center scholars teach in the politics and history departments of the College of Arts and Sciences and make a major contribution to the curriculum of the college.

Q: Before you came to the Miller Center, you taught at Harvard and served on the National Security Council staff during the Gulf War. And President Bush recently appointed you to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. What do your previous experiences and your time at the Miller Center bring to your work on the board?

A: My previous experiences and my academic work give me a richer base of knowledge to draw upon in seeing how contemporary problems have echoes in prior experience. That experience and the knowledge that I can gain from the Miller Center’s research work helps suggest a richer menu of opportunities and concerns than might otherwise be apparent in the day-to-day turmoil of events.

Q: What is your vision for the physical expansion presently taking place at the Miller Center?

A: I’d like to bring all our scholars into one place. We rent space in two different sites away from the Miller Center to house all of our programs. When the new building is completed, we will have all the Miller Center community in one spot; that community will be one of the most interesting places to work and study for anyone who is interested in the recent history of the American government and the workings of its political institutions. We will also have an outstanding archive through which we can make the fruits of our research available to the rest of the world.


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