Rebecca Wendt manages a collection of 200 bound interviews with some of the most influential players in California politics. In the quiet rooms of the California State Archives, one can peruse intimate accounts of legislative battles that have shaped California. And they’re all open for public viewing. A list of everyone interviewed is available online at www.ss.ca.gov/archives/archives.htm.
What kinds of things would people come looking for?
One of the strengths of the research collection is legislative papers. The people doing legislative-intent research—because California law is based on intents—come in and look at the working papers from the Legislature to find out what [legislators] really meant when they wrote those laws. We have records from the state treasurer; from some of the governors; from, say, the California Highway Patrol, which is what I’m processing right now. We have 300 boxes from them, which include studies on safety, records on Golden Gate Bridge suicides—all sorts of things.
Do you have anything from this governor yet?
Not yet. They do usually wait until the end of their terms.
What’s the most interesting thing you have from a previous governor?
We do have all of the gifts that Governor Wilson received. He can’t keep them. I think he has a wide variety of things, from artwork to special awards and things like that.
And you manage the oral-history records?
Right. It’s the State Government Oral History Program, and that started, by statute, in 1986. It’s sort of a continuation of a project that was started by UC Berkeley in the ‘60s. They were documenting eras of governors, and we wanted to focus not just on governors but on other people who were influential in policy: the heads of state agencies, some judges, also some people who’ve sort of been in the trenches.
What’s the process like?
First, we send someone to make contact with the potential interviewee and ask if they’re willing to do it. Whoever is assigned to do the interviewing will go out and do some research, so we just don’t ask simple questions. We are trying to get information that is not written down anywhere else, so there’s some intensive research that is done to find out what the overall picture of California was at the time they were active in politics, and then we do several sessions of interviews. They usually are interviewed an hour at a time; it’s very taxing to be interviewed like this. Then the tape recordings are transcribed, and then whoever did the interview goes through to make sure they were transcribed correctly, and then that raw transcript is sent to the interviewee, and they have the opportunity to make corrections. Once they approve it, we go ahead and print up some copies, bind them and send a copy to our cooperating institutions: UCLA, UC Berkeley, CSU Fullerton, CSU Sacramento. … Now, however, we’ve totally lost our funding, so we have to find out how we’re going to keep this running. It’s expensive to do these interviews. I took over the program in 2001, which was the last year we were fully funded. It was $250,000. There were the four institutions doing interviews, and each one had at least two people interviewing at a time.
How many interviews get completed in a year?
So $250,000 would pay for 16?
That was a three-year period. With that $250,000, I think we did about 50 interviews. Those are rough numbers. I’d have to go back and look. We hadn’t been funded for a really long time with much money, but a former secretary of state, Bill Jones, was very behind the program. Things got tight during the Kevin Shelley administration. We were not funded at all, and we have not been since.
Who’s top on your list to interview?
I actually have a list of a hundred people I want to interview, some former legislators who were in there for 20 years. Now, with term limits, we’re not getting the same sort of institutional knowledge. I think we really need to interview former governors. We haven’t interviewed very many. We’ve approached some, and some of them turned us down.
Who turned you down?
[George] Deukmejian turned us down. Mr. [Pete] Wilson has agreed to be interviewed but has not yet had time.
Who are your favorite interviews of the ones published?
I really liked Ken Maddy’s interview because he was being interviewed as he knew he was dying, and so he had a lot to say. It’s the biggest one we have. It’s three volumes. I like Paul Bannai, who’s an Asian-American at the Legislature. … He talked about being interned during World War II. That kind of affected his decision to be in the Legislature.