New SMU oral history site reveals insider’s views of 2004 presidential election

SMU's new Collective Memory Project explores the oft-overlooked, yet pivotal election cycle of 2004.

George W. Bush against John Kerry

DALLAS (SMU) – Former Vice President Dick Cheney relished the role of campaign attack dog during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, seeing it as a respite from his post-9/11 duties “setting up what became known as a terror surveillance program and later enhanced interrogation techniques.”

George W. Bush against John Kerry
George W. Bush against John Kerry

Cheney’s interview, in which he also described campaigning as an important and largely enjoyable shared experience with his family, is featured in a resource-rich website focused on the 2004 election developed by the Center for Presidential History at SMU (Southern Methodist University).  The Election of 2004 is the first venture to go live in the center’s Collective Memory Project, an ongoing non-partisan oral history collaboration dedicated to enhancing the archival record of various presidential administrations.

The site is searchable and organized by people, issues, campaigns and elections, and includes an interactive timeline.  All of the interviews are videotaped, and all are accompanied by transcripts.  They are the words and memories of participants and witnesses to history, unedited and revealing.  Site highlights include:

  • The Cheney interview, including his scathing assessment of former U.S. Senator and Democratic primary candidate for president John Edwards as a man unworthy of respect
  • Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi’s description of collusion between other Democratic primary campaigns to knock Dean out of the race before the Iowa Caucuses
  • Senior Democratic campaign advisor Robert Shrum’s description of the fierce competition for campaign staff among primary contenders – including John Edwards’ angry reaction (“I’ll never forget…even on my deathbed”) to Shrum’s decision to work for eventual nominee John Kerry
  • George W. Bush campaign chairman Ken Mehlman’s determination that the last 72 hours of the 2004 campaign would not reflect the mistakes he considered crucial to Bush’s loss of the popular vote in 2000.

The site also includes non-partisan analysis of the 2004 election as the first in which independent 527 organizations played a (now very controversial) role, and an evaluation of the role of nascent social media in the election.  Insightful interviews with journalists who covered the campaign include Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of Cook Political Report; Dan Balz, White House correspondent for the Washington Post; and Walter Shapiro, who covered the election for USA Today and subsequently wrote, One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In.

“People who were neck-deep in these exhausting campaigns from a decade ago revealed the inner workings of the most bruising and bitter election in recent times,” explained Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History.  “These are their words, unedited and unvarnished, calculating and complex, just like the men and women engaged in the highest arena of American politics.  The conversations and analysis on our 2004 election site are more than timely as presidential aspirants already jostle for position in 2016.”

The site was developed with the significant assistance of CPH Fellow Michael Nelson, who is Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College and also a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

The first Collective Memory Project explores the George W. Bush presidency and its times.  Topics to be addressed as the research expands will include (but are not limited to):

  • Faith and the presidency 
  • Leaders at home and abroad 
  • Judicial nominations and the Department of Justice
  • The first lady and East Wing diplomacy
  • American security policy in East and Southeast Asia after 9/11
  • Critical decisions of the Iraq War. 

“We developed this as a scholarly resource, useful to future historians and to students of our own time,” said Brian Franklin, CPH associate director. “Political junkies of all stripes will find the content fascinating – as we have.”

Visit the SMU Center for Presidential History’s Election of 2004 site at

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls approximately 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools.

The Center for Presidential History (CPH) at Southern Methodist University exists to research and advance understanding of American presidential history.  The CPH pursues this goal primarily through two complementary methods: lectures, conferences and events focused on presidential history, as well as the Collective Memory Project. 

# # #