After passing through a contentious presidential campaign,  many Americans have been moved to think again about the basic structure and logic of the nation’s constitutional order. Most prominently, what exactly is the president’s place in the American constitutional system? Are there lessons from the past—both from the period during which the Constitution was constructed, as well as from a rich history thereafter—that help us to understand better how this system both operates and is to function properly?  The purpose of this seminar is to cast a Madisonian eye on that past, both to learn what history can teach us about today and to develop habits of constitutional thought useful for understanding the nature of presidential power in a changing world. The seminar’s focus will be partly on a Constitution which, for the most part, has been a firmly fixed constant in the nation’s political life. Participants will also explore the evolved, multi-faceted roles the president now plays in that constitutional system—and an enduring ambivalence about presidential leadership in a political order predicated on checks and balances.

Seminar Scholar

Russell Riley, associate professor and co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program, is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on elite oral history interviewing and on the contemporary American presidency. In his time at the Center, he has logged more than 1,000 hours of in-depth, confidential interviews with cabinet officers and senior members of the White House staff reaching back to the Carter and Reagan administrations. Since 2003, he has led the William J. Clinton Presidential History Project, interviewing more than 100 former Clinton-era officials, including leading members of Congress and foreign heads of state. He has lectured extensively on American politics and oral history methods across the United States, as well as in China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, and (by videoconference) the West Bank.

Professor Riley studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and then received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, where he was a research assistant at the Miller Center. He subsequently taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown. He helped found Penn’s Washington Semester Program and from 1994 to 1998 was its resident director and a lecturer in American politics. From 1998 to 2000, he was a program director with the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies in Salzburg, Austria, and he continues on an adjunct basis to help direct occasional programs for the Seminar. He returned to the Miller Center in January 2001.