Stephen Knott, Ph.D. ’79
Stephen received the College's Outstanding Achievement Award in 2009. He is currently an associate professor of National Security Studies at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. He published his fourth book, At Reagan's Side: Insiders' Recollections from Sacramento to the White House, in 2009, which he co-authored with Jeffrey Chidester.
From the spring 2006 issue of Assumption Magazine:
By Troy Watkins
In May 1979, Stephen Knott ’79 sat with his classmates and listened intently to Senator Edward Kennedy’s Assumption College commencement address. Steve undoubtedly wondered where his life would lead him. Who knew that it would converge with the life of his commencement speaker?
Today, Dr. Stephen Knott is associate professor and research fellow for the Miller Center of Public Affairs’ Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia. He oversees the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project (which was released to the public in February) and is team leader of the Edward M. Kennedy Project. He also participates in the George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton Projects. Safe to say that he’s come full circle, or maybe, in a sense, back to where he started—listening intently to Senator Kennedy.
A native of Paxton, MA, Steve attended Assumption based on a recommendation about its Politics Department. Interested in politics and history at an early age, he decided to major in Politics and was not disappointed. “I was the beneficiary of a life-altering liberal arts education whose legacy resonates with me to this day,” he said about his time at Assumption.
Steve admitted being challenged from the start by former Politics Professors Chris Wolfe, Patrick Powers ’64, and the late Jack Crutcher. He also appreciated other professors. “Angela Dorenkamp HD’95 taught me how to write; Ken Moynihan AP’62 nurtured my love of history; Fr. Richard Richards, A.A. ’46 taught me to appreciate the Fine Arts; John Burke HD’97 and George Doyle HD’92 exposed me to new areas of interest; and the Politics professors challenged a number of preconceived notions I held about the best way one should live their life,” he said.
“I learned how to write, how to think ‘critically,’ and not in the way that term is bandied about by today’s education schools. My Assumption professors challenged me to step back from, to step outside of, the world I lived in, in Central Massachusetts, which is what a liberal arts education is all about. I learned that ideas were important, that ideas have consequences for our everyday lives, although we may not always notice. And finally, I learned that there were certain truths that were not defined by time or place, or popular opinion.”
Steve also spent a one-semester internship in Washington, DC, working for a small interest group. This was in the days long before 9-11, so the city was highly accessible. “I remember seeing Anwar Sadat on Capitol Hill—he was in Washington for the signing of the Camp David Accords,” he recalled. “My experience in DC served to whet my appetite about American politics.”
Overall, Steve cherishes his Assumption education and experience. “I have nothing but fond memories of Assumption,” he explained. “I’ve maintained friendships with several classmates, and we often get together and reminisce about our time together.”
Steve’s career included a six-year stint at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, where he met many of the people who are now being interviewed by the Miller Center for the Edward Kennedy Project. Steve taught American Politics at the University of New Hampshire, Boston College, and Quinnipiac University, before a seven-year tenure as associate professor of political science at the United States Air Force Academy.
In 2001, he jumped at the opportunity to join the Miller Center. “I love studying the presidency, and this position allows me to interview some fascinating people, and help preserve their recollections for history,” he stated. “Our interview sessions, many of which last for a day and a half, are designed to capture for the historical record a picture of each presidency seen through the eyes of those on the ‘inside.’ We have often discovered that the press accounts of an administration, while they may provide a ‘first draft’ of history, are incomplete. So in addition to filling in the gaps in the documentary record we also try to fill in the gaps left by the media.”
The Miller Center is the only institution in the country doing this work, as the National Archives and the various Presidential Libraries no longer conduct oral histories. The histories on the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton presidencies are funded in part by the respective presidential library foundations. The Miller Center maintains its scholarly independence from them, but the interview transcripts are ultimately housed both at the Miller Center and at the respective presidential library.
Without these recollections from key people in each administration, the information might be forever lost. “Official documents have never told the entire story, and that is truer today,” Steve said. “A former White House chief of staff recently told us that in light of increasing demands for information from Congress and from special prosecutors, he ‘stopped writing anything down’ and ‘didn’t keep any written notes.’ This, coupled with the advent of e-mail and the cell phone means that future generations of historians and political scientists would have a difficult time piecing the story together without these oral recollections.”
Steve has interviewed many cabinet members and officers, as well as congressional and foreign leaders during his tenure. “For many of our interviewees, giving their oral history can be an emotional experience. On more than one occasion I’ve had to stop an interviewee to regain their composure-for many of them their time in the White House was the best years of their lives,” he said. “My experience with both Democratic and Republican interviewees has reaffirmed my faith in the American system, as naïve as that sounds these days. Most of our interviewees have impressed me with their intelligence and their devotion to the public good. They are not caricatured public servants that one hears repeatedly portrayed on talk radio.”
The Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project is a new venture for the Miller Center, which is now engaging in comprehensive oral histories of major American legislative figures. The Kennedy Project is scheduled to last another 5 years, and 38 individuals have been interviewed to date, including the Senator on 8 separate occasions. “It’s a fascinating project, and for me it is all the more so because of my attachment to and affection for Massachusetts,” Steve said.
In his “spare” time, Steve teaches politics courses at the University of Virginia and he has written three books: The Reagan Years; Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth; and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency. Steve joked, “The only downside is that this has really done a number on my tennis game. Since I travel for so many of these oral history interviews, I can never find the time to play on the road. That’s my only ‘complaint.’ But, overall, my position at the Miller Center has exceeded my wildest expectations, and I couldn’t be happier.”
To find out more about the Kennedy Family legacy at Assumption, please visit www.assumption.edu/kennedy.
Last updated 7/6/11