Bancroft Library is home to new Shorenstein Program in Politics, Policy and Values

With the United States and many other governments mired in red ink, the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library couldn’t have picked a timelier topic than the U.S. national debt for the initial focus of its new Shorenstein Program in Politics, Policy and Values.

Establishment of the program in the Bancroft’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) and underwriting by San Francisco commercial real estate titan Walter Shorenstein was formally announced today (Tuesday, March 2). Bancroft Director Charles Faulhaber said it has been under discussion for several years, and that the timing suddenly seemed right.

The Shorenstein program will examine the historical and political “back stories” about the national debt and other major contemporary political conflicts through the analytical narratives offered in oral interviews with some of the major players on the U.S. political scene.

“The UC Berkeley Shorenstein program will build upon and dramatically expand the ability of historians and scholars in a variety of disciplines to integrate personal experience and observations into their interpretations of U.S. society,” said Richard Cándida Smith, a UC Berkeley professor of history and ROHO director.

He said the project “will be a leader in efforts to make history human-centered, alive and meaningful to the issues occupying the contemporary world.”

“I’m delighted to be working with UC Berkeley to create the Shorenstein Program in Politics, Policy and Values, and I’m grateful to President Clinton for joining us for the announcement of this effort,” said Shorenstein at his 95th birthday celebration in San Francisco last week. The event was attended by Clinton, after the former president’s public talk on campus earlier in the day.

“I have every confidence that the scholars at Bancroft Library will make this project a great and lasting success,” said Shorenstein.

Interviewing former policy makers

The ROHO team will conduct short, exploratory interviews this summer, and in the fall will begin lengthy interviews with former cabinet members, policy makers and likely former presidents about the United States’ federal deficit from 1988 to 2004. The team will be trying to determine how the Clinton administration managed first to lower the annual deficit substantially and then go on to develop an annual budget surplus by the end of Clinton’s presidency.

It also will seek personal insights into how and why the administration of President George H. Bush implemented a host of new policies that led the nation to war and took the national debt into the stratosphere.

A campus symposium tentatively planned for fall 2011 may include a public forum to discuss the program’s findings on the national debt. “Who knows what the politics of national debt will be by then, but chances are this intransient issue will remain of concern to Americans, and our findings might well help inform public debate,” said Martin Meeker, a historian and research specialist at ROHO, who will direct the Shorenstein program.

In phases two and three, slated for 2011-2013, the Shorenstein program interviewers will try to deconstruct political gridlock and public distrust as evidenced by such congressional devices as the filibuster and cloture, and to assess the United States’ future prospects domestically and globally.

Distribution plans

The program will produce related broadcast-quality, digital format oral histories that will be widely distributed and posted on the Web. Interviews are tentatively slated to include former U.S. cabinet members, banking leaders, economic advisers and foreign heads of state.

It is the third research center funded by Shorenstein at a major U.S. university. Harvard University is home to the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, and Stanford University’s Asia/Pacific Research Center hosts the Shorenstein Initiative.

At the reception last week, Shorenstein accepted a bound copy of his own oral history that was recently completed by ROHO’s Cándida Smith and Laura McCreery. The account of his life is posted on the ROHO web pages Interviews on Business History and Individual Memoirs in Politics and Government).

In that oral history, Shorenstein talked about the riskiness of financial debt.

“Just as compound interest can work for you in a good investment, it works against you with lingering debt stuck on a credit card or a mortgage,” he said. “Warren Buffett says that ‘borrowed money is the most common way that smart people go broke.’ I would amend that adage to include smart countries.”