Campus & Community

Institute of Politics opens video archives

4 min read

Forum events available online starting in 1978

There’s President George H.W. Bush riffing on “Saturday Night Live” comedian Dana Carvey riffing on him. There’s South African Bishop Desmond Tutu talking about people power. There’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai talking about the importance of striving to do your best.

IOP Director Jeanne Shaheen (left) and Heather Campion from the Citizens Financial Group Inc. introduce a video clip. (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

And there’s so much more.

Harvard’s Institute of Politics has opened the video archives of what is now called the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Long a drawing place for world leaders, activists, and academic experts on a variety of subjects, the archive contains video from nearly 1,200 different events over almost 30 years.

“Other than the United Nations, Congress, and the White House, there may not be another venue in the country, or the world, that attracts a similar number of prominent figures to one stage [than the forum],” said IOP Director Jeanne Shaheen.

The first video on the long list of forum events, available on the institute’s Web site ( is the dedication of the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1978. Events from 2006 have already been added, as the archive is continually updated within days of an event occurring.

The archive Web site includes a highlight page with excerpted videos from George H.W. Bush, Tutu, Maathai, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, U.S. Sen. John McCain, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Union Organizer Cesar Chavez.

The archive is searchable by year, subject, and participant, and has the potential to be a valuable tool for scholars, Shaheen said. In addition to video, transcripts for a handful of the more recent events are posted on the archive Web site. While events will continue to be transcribed, Shaheen said the IOP does not plan a push to transcribe all the events in its library. Besides, Shaheen said, watching a video of an event gives the viewer a much greater understanding of what happened.

“This makes these people and events come alive in a way that the written word can’t compete with,” Shaheen said.

Though many events were taped or filmed over the years, many others, particularly in the forum’s first years, were audiotaped. While those tapes still exist, Shaheen said the project’s emphasis has been to get the video up on the Web. The IOP does hope to digitize the audio tapes and add them to the archive in an effort that may start later this year.

The effort to digitize the forum video began more than a year ago, Shaheen said, with a discussion of what a valuable resource the video library was.

“The thinking was that this is such a great resource for people, it’s a shame that it’s all in boxes,” Shaheen said.

The videos are a treasure trove of collected wisdom and varied points of view, and a living record of current events. Shaheen listed Nobel Peace Prize winner Maathai’s visit in September 2005 as among her favorites, mainly for the story Maathai told of a hummingbird trying to put out a fire while the rest of the animals, who’d already lost hope, just watched.

The hummingbird flew back and forth as quickly as possible, the story went, picking up a drop of water in its beak, flying to drop it on the fire, and flying back to the river for more.

When queried by the other animals as to why it was putting so much effort into such a hopeless cause, the hummingbird replied: “I’m doing the best I can!”

Shaheen said the story illustrated the importance of commitment, patience, and persistence, even on causes that can’t be solved by one person.

“I think it’s so true; most of us aren’t going to be able to move mountains or change the world,” Shaheen said. “[But] you can make a difference.”