Talking History–National Museum of the U.S. Army

UMW alumna, Kerri Kline, visited on Thursday, April 9th to speak about her job as the Chief of Operations of the Army Historical Foundation and the building of the National Museum of the U.S. Army.  She spoke about the layout of the museum (set to open about two years from now) and the business aspects of running a museum.  She explained how learning the marketing and finance skills were a challenge when she first began working for the foundation.  However, Kline learned quickly and at one point opened her own consulting firm, which allowed her some flexibility and the ability to learn more about business.  Kline made her way back to the foundation a couple of years after beginning consulting, realizing that working with history was her true passion.  Dr. Devlin asked a question about an exhibit in the museum that explains the stories about both Union and Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War.  The designers call this exhibit a “touch of gray,” because it features both sides of the war.  This opened up questions of how the museum was going to address issues of minorities recognized in the U.S. Army.  This created a discussion about how the museum was taking an approach of not to avoid controversial subjects since they are all important to understanding the history of the U.S. Army.  Kline ended the talk by explaining how her major in History at UMW helped her to develop the skills necessary to work for the foundation–such as reading analytically, synthesizing information, and communicating efficiently.  She gave advice to current undergraduates to take advantage of study abroad and internship opportunities.  She highlighted how important it was to try many different opportunities because it is the only way you will be able to know where your passion lies.

Talking History- Fantasies of Empathy in the Age of Trump

Alisha Gaines’ guest lecture on empathy in the age of Trump talked about the ways white Americans try to empathize with the daily struggles of being a person of color in America following the election of 2018. The belief that we as Americans are in a post-racial period because of the election of a black president is false. ‘Good whites’ feel that if they show enough empathy or sorrow for the lasting torrent of stupidity and racism felt everyday be a person of color. Following the election this empathy was shown in messages and declarations of marching and speaking out against what they see and asking what they can do to help; being an ally. By proclaiming themselves as an ally they are placing themselves away from the ‘other’ types of white who have not already come forward in apology to do what they can to help. Ally-ship and empathy relate to one another because there is no real danger in being an ally or various levels to it. Empathy was described as living in someone else’s shoes or entering into a country and forcing oneself to assimilate. But countries can be left and shoes changed, allowing the visitor to decided when they had had enough of the truth and want to return to the comfort then found before. This can be seen in the sadly large number of white Americans wanting to live as black Americans and Muslim Americans to see how bad life for them really is. Examples of these experiments include Ray Sprigle a journalist who used blackface, really a bad tan, to ‘turn black’ and live the black experience. Also John Howard Griffin author of Black Like Me where he understood blackface and a new identity in the south during the 1960s, who inspired Grace Halsell to also undertake this expedition after reading his book to see how the female perspective would change. More modern examples of this include Joshua Solomon and short-lived reality television show ‘Black-White’. The commonality of these shows is the want and need to see how bad the experience of the black American is because that is the only way to show sympathy for the way they live instead of asking an actual black person and listening to their experience and ideas of change. Instead skipping that step and going straight to the inversion method of learning about another person’s life. For many, after the ‘change back’ to white felt they were now able to speak on the black experience as an ally but unlike them, Racheal Dolezal, a white person who identifies as black would not ‘change’ because she felt it was her right to decided how she represented herself. Real empathy should be about recognizing another person’s pain. Cross racial understanding of how and why you, not personally, hurt of helped to facilitate the difficulties in their everyday experience, not getting offended or feeling attacked about it, and then discussing ways to solve the issue. As Gaines put it ‘empathy plus’ means real risk, shouldering the burden, and being able to know when to take the backseat and allow others to lead and voice their own opinions and feelings by giving them a platform to speak.

Riley: The White House as a Black Box

Scholars have struggled since Nixon’s presidency in having access to Presidential records.  Scholars tend not to have access to documents until a President is out of office, or if the records have been released by the government to appease the American population.  Since Watergate, US presidents have been wary of releasing all of their information and documents. This led to an executive order made by George W. Bush that limited the amount of documents that are released and the access the public has to them.  Riley mentions how the White House uses press conferences to reveal information, but notes how they typically have a hold on the information that is spread. This leads some journalists to claim that they have ‘unidentified sources” which can cause a problem with the legitimacy of pieces.  Due to the lack of available documents, scholars are now relying on an oral history (public speeches, memoirs) to piece together the information of presidencies.

Riley-White House as a black box

Riley’s work looks at the lack of documents that have come out of the White House since the 1970’s, due largely to the numerous EO (executive orders) that have been implemented in the last four decades. Whereas many former presidents would donate documents to the National archives (within reason, of course, some things have to remain classified for various reasons), many historians/reporters/political scientists must now rely on public speeches or appearances in order to have some notion of what is occurring in the White House. These speeches/appearances are very limited as compared to what is actually occurring in the executive branch (and change or are updated frequently), they do allow historians/ political scientists to see what is occurring. Memoirs are helpful for looking at an event/president and can contain a mixture of presidential knowledge but also the general notes on the time.
For those who get their information elsewhere, including WH/ house reps/ etc., it can often be a tricky situation regarding the ultimate authenticity of them. While some leaked news is false due to rumors, other leaked news may be totally true but officials may step in and claim it as unauthentic which makes it hard to have a genuine discussion about it until it is proven otherwise.

The White House as a Black Box

Russell L. Riley’s article explores the problems created by the public’s limited access to presidential documents at the White House. He begins by referencing the white house as the “black box”, which is a reference to the Soviet Union during the cold war. This reference is used to introduce his focus on the secrecy of the White House of which senior executive officers no longer keep written records on presidential actions. In fact the last presidential records in an archive are from Jimmy Carter’s presidency. However, Riley depicts how modern presidents often donated their papers to National Archives once leaving office, but in the wake of the Watergate scandal this changed. The Watergate scandal led to the development of the Presidential Records Act of 1978 in order to give the public access to presidential documents. However, President George W. Bush then altered this act. Riley goes into discussing the significance of oral history because in this case they provide valuable information in concern to the White House that written records no longer provide. The most common oral history provided by the White House is through the press, official statements by the president, internal documents, and memoirs. Riley shows that with the significance of oral history as a source there can be problems with oral history due to time lapse of which information can be forgotten or left out.

Blog post 14 -The White House as a Black Box: Oral History and the Problem of Evidence in Presidential Studies by Russell L. Riley

In this article, Riley discusses the White House by using the metaphor of the “black box” (Riley 187) to describe the affairs that are performed within it. Riley discusses in relation to that on how oral history can be help in understanding the history of US presidents, but also talks about its limits. He argues that in using oral history through using interviews, it can be beneficial towards knowing more on the function within the White House and the presidency. Riley first goes into detail on the primary sources that can be acquired in studying the White House such as documents discussing its performance. One example that is given is the Executive Order 13233 that made by President George Bush after 9/11 had happened. This order restricted the amount of information coming in and out of the White house. This caused controversy in the public to the point that this order was then later removed. Riley then discusses the benefits of using oral history in relation to studying the White House and the US presidency. One of the benefits that Riley points out is that it fills in the empty spaces when looking at a written source on the White house. One example of this is the oral history project done by historian Charles T. Morrissey that made interviews in helping give more of a understanding to Truman’s presidency. However, there are limitations to using oral history as memory isn’t perfect. Memory can “fade over time” (Riley 200) and be distorted which can lead to limitations when doing interviews. Riley near the end of the article points out the usefulness of oral history and how it works differently to how evidences gain in relation to studying a specific US president. This article is overall pretty interesting in understanding the limits and benefits in oral history. It also give me more of a better understanding of oral history from what I previously knew.

“The White House as a Black Box” Blog Post

Not only did this article bring a lot of insight into the history of record keeping in the White House, but also into how oral histories can be just as important as written word sources to piece together a historical event (or events). In their article, Russell L. Riley discusses the history of record keeping within the White House, and how there are some gaps of presidential records as a result. After Nixon’s Watergate “scandal,” there were various acts created to limit the public access to presidential documents. Before acts such as the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and executive order EO13233 made by Bush, presidents would “routinely” donate their papers to the National Archives after stepping down from office (Riley, 192). I found this to be very interesting because I was not aware that 1) presidents would turn over their documents to be made for public viewing, and that 2) these documents were now practically being held under lock and key to prevent the public from viewing them.

In the aspect of oral histories, this article also goes into detail about how and why oral histories are important, with the example of the lack of White House documents from the past few presidencies. While oral histories and memoirs can be seen as a “self-serving genre,” these can also “provide color and detail that will be missing from the official papers” where there are gaps” (Riley, 195). I believe that oral histories can be useful outside of a presidential history. As mentioned in previous readings for this course (namely, the readings on the Pueblo Revolt) oral histories can fill in gaps left behind in the telling of an event, but also possibly provide a new perspective on that event.


Sarah E Jones

The White House as a Black Box

Riley writes an interesting article when he covers how we manage to get information about presidents and their tenure in office. It was interesting to learn how NIxon recorded all of his conversations and even his behavior during his time in power. These tapes offered so much information for historians, and the best part about these tapes were they were unaltered. However, for all their value in being a source of information, they were also the very reason why Nixon was forced to resign, they were indisputable evidence against him when he came under investigation for Watergate. Since then, presidents no longer record all their conversations the way Nixon did, thus changing the way we has researchers and historians are able to gather information while someone was president. Furthermore, former presidents like Bush changed and added more regulations on how and when we can access papers from former presidents. With this in mind, we have now had to rely on knowing that when we can finally access any papers released to the public on a president’s administration it could be seriously altered. Even though we have the media to thank for keeping us as informed as possible on what is happening in the White House, they are also at the mercy of restricted information. So now we have to rely on oral history. Oral history can offer a great deal of information, but like the presidential papers that are released starting with Reagan, we are well aware of the fact that things may be left out or perhaps forgotten. Despite this fact, it is some of the best means to analyze a presidential term.

The White House as a Black Box

The author started off the reading by referencing the Cold War and how we learned much more about the Soviet Union after it collapsed. This whole idea of a black box. He connected this to present day of the White House. He asked do we know what is happening in the White House? This has been a part of our history not always know. He pointed that now preisdents are moving away from the trend of recording what happens in the white house. He pointed a key factor for this type of study is oral history interviews. The primary sources for the behavior of the white house is quite limited. The press is very important with this as well. It is a way to connect the American people about what is happening. The author states the work of the press does 2 main things which is 1. To dig into a story more and 2. To give a more complete picture of what is happening. The official communication is considered an output of the black box. What we see in the press is more from an investigation of what is happening. The author than takes about leaking information from the white house. It could have the potential to show what is happening but could also be false. You also do not know who is the source is from the leak. Another way to understand is to look at the internal paperwork. Part of the reasons we know them is from official investigators having presidents make documents official. The author then discusses FOIA and how this a good way for people to get information about the presidents. Other good sources are memoirs because rely on their own paperwork and a big one is oral history. Oral history has been assisting the anthropology and sociology field to help construct social behaviors. Oral history can be a substitute for what written history does not have. While oral history is wonderful it does have a few faults. An example is humans sometimes cannot remember everything well. Details can be left out. This is also a chance for people just to talk about themselves. This practice of oral history did not start till about the 1960’s. In conclusion that oral history is a good short  term solution to the problem. I really enjoyed this article because it is important to think about what happens in the building that a lot of the decisions are made that affect us.

Russell L. Riley, “The White House as a Black Box”

Riley examines the strengths and weaknesses of oral history in providing accurate evidence of the inner workings of the executive branch of government in the U.S. He uses the current White House as an example of the “black box” (187). The term “black box” originated during the Cold War when historians weren’t aware of the inner workings of the Russian government due to a lack of free-flowing information (187). Today in the U.S., senior executive officers no longer keep detailed written records of their thoughts and activities due to reasons such as national security anxiety or just neglect (188). As a result, oral histories have became very valuable resource because of a lack of other primary sources (188). Communication to the public through media or spokespeople has become a priority amongst the American public (189). Oral histories compensate in areas that lack written documentation (195). However, one reality of oral histories of president’s is that information can often times be omitted (196). Good oral histories are conducted with a historian who is friendly, professional, and speaks openly and candidly (201).