When Kiron K. Skinner isn't explaining history and public policy on television and radio shows, she is likely to be busy running the international-relations program at Carnegie Mellon University. Or she may be serving on think-tank or policy-advisory panels or traveling to California for her work as a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Now she has another project to squeeze in, one that could affect how future generations will understand the troubled opening years of this century in America: She has been chosen to serve on the advisory board for the George W. Bush Oral History Project, to be conducted by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The center has done similar projects on each president since Jimmy Carter.
Ms. Skinner, 48, has created oral histories herself. She interviewed statesmen who shaped policy at the end of the cold war, among them George P. Shultz, a former secretary of state, and Caspar W. Weinberger, a former secretary of defense.
"Often what's in the archives tells one story, and what's remembered and what's told verbally tells a different story," she says. "It helps a scholar to have both sides."
Ms. Skinner, an associate professor of international relations and political science, played a role in the Bush administration. She worked closely with Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, as a member of the Defense Policy Board. She also wrote 2007's The Strategy of Campaigning: Lessons From Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin with three other authors, including Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state from 2005 to 2009.
Working with cabinet members gave Ms. Skinner insight into the challenges they faced after September 11, 2001. "The Bush administration was grappling with a huge paradigm shift" as it learned to cope with threats from terrorist groups rather than nation-states, she says.
She also saw officials' personal sides. She remembers that members of the Defense Policy Board were seated around the table by rank, and she once joked with Secretary Rumsfeld that she didn't like having junior people—including all the women—sitting at the back. The next day, the name cards were switched.
"I thought that was just an interesting human-interest story about this secretary of defense, who was seen as a very tough, macho guy," she says.
Ms. Skinner's long history of working with national leaders includes a stint as a research associate for Mr. Shultz—who served under President Ronald Reagan—when he was writing his 1993 memoir. They now work together at Hoover. "She did a very good job," Mr. Shultz says. "She's careful, scholarly, and a hard worker."
Ms. Skinner's parents were civil-rights activists in the 1960s, and she says she was inspired by their belief that "American ideals and values could trump the political realities of the day.
"That had the single most important effect on my interest in politics and my interest in policy, both domestic and foreign," Ms. Skinner adds.
She earned an associate degree from Sacramento City College, a bachelor's degree in political science from Spelman College, and a Ph.D. in political science and international relations from Harvard University. But while her interest in policy has grown, she remains firmly rooted in academe.
"At the end of the day, policy, if it means anything that's lasting, has to come from a solid intellectual foundation," she says.
Could she someday move into a prominent position in government related to national security or foreign affairs? "It wouldn't surprise me," Mr. Shultz says. "She's capable and very knowledgeable."
For now, Ms. Skinner will continue teaching and writing. She is an author or editor of seven books, including two New York Times bestsellers; her book Reagan: A Life in Letters was featured in a Time Magazine cover story.
Ms. Skinner says she particularly enjoys finding material that has not been widely seen—for example, some of President Reagan's writings—and analyzing it. "Combining that with interviews, with oral histories, to me is the most exciting part of my academic career," she says.
"I enjoy the work that I do," she says. "The various parts of my portfolio link to each other. There's enough overlap there that what I'm doing is scalable."