The interviewer is chiefly responsible for developing the questions that assure the interview will be worthwhile. I have conducted many of the South Carolina Political Collections' oral history program interviews, and it has been a richly rewarding experience. Many of my most vivid memories come not from the hundreds of thousands of documents I've perused, but from the stories told and emotions shown during oral history interviews.
My best insight into one member of Congress occurred in an interview in which he discussed his decision to switch parties and become a Republican. Floyd Spence was a young and popular state representative. He became South Carolina's first Democratic legislator to switch political parties, joining the Republican Party at a time when Republicans were an insignificant element of the state's political landscape and held no public offices. He became quite emotional as he described walking up to the local courthouse the morning after making the front page with his decision. He saw a crowd outside, and as he approached, it seemed from their demeanor and comments that a beloved figure must have died. The crowd was talking about Spence himself. And in the weeks, months, and years after, he was cut by old friends who would cross the street rather than speak to him.
At the time of our interview, Spence was among the most powerful members of Congress and chaired the National Security Committee, and it was clear that he still could not understand how he could have been treated so cruelly for a difficult and carefully weighed decision.
You can learn a great deal about relationships in these interviews. I often ask narrators about their circle of associates to whom they turn for advice and counsel.
Sometimes what you learn comes as a surprise. A country lawyer is represented in several of our collections by numerous long letters describing the political sentiment of and events in his region. He offered thoughtful advice about how each legislator might proceed on bills or campaign issues important to those voters. I interviewed a former staffer and happened to mention this lawyer, who I assumed to be a trusted member of the inner circle and whose long letters, I supposed, were significant. The narrator laughed when I mentioned the man, who he characterized as a bit of a crackpot. He told me they rarely read the letters. To this day I am a much more critical analyst of the documentary record because of that experience.