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Published: Saturday, 10/14/2000

Author-historian tackles modern presidency

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Richard Norton Smith is not exactly in danger of becoming a household word, though for the first time, the author and historian faces the very real threat that strangers may recognize him on the street.

That's because the red-headed, owlish, and slightly plump Mr. Smith, one of Michigan's least-known and most accomplished persons, has been doing nationally televised commentary on public television after this year's major political events, including the conventions and the presidential debates.

Though that's an honor, one senses he also finds it a bother; a day and a half away from work at his beloved Gerald R. Ford museum and work on his 10th book, a major biography of Nelson Rockefeller, the longtime New York governor and vice-president.

And though he has only a bachelor's degree and never has been on the faculty of a major university, Mr. Smith has become a noted expert on political leadership and the modern presidency - in large part by revitalizing four presidential libraries. Rumors were he might shortly be on the move again - until this month, when he left the federal archives system to run the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, which raises money to fund special temporary major exhibits at the museum.

Presidential libraries and museums every year draw thousands of visitors, many of whom want to somehow share in what many have seen as the “magic” of the office.

Does that “presidential mystique” still exist?

“Bill Clinton said he has `demystified' the presidency,” Mr. Smith said with an elfin smile, semi-sprawled on a couch in his office at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. “I suspect that's a euphemism. While some of that is healthy, to the extent it involves talking about one's underwear,” they risk losing some of the office's power.

Mr. Smith does know a lot about that office. At 47, he has already made major improvements at the presidential libraries of Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Ford, modernizing exhibits, organizing major conferences, and boosting attendance at each. In Grand Rapids, he turned the once staid Ford museum into a dynamic interactive museum of the 1970s.

While doing all that, he has also written major biographies of George Washington, Herbert Hoover, and the Chicago Tribune's legendary publisher “Colonel” Robert McCormick, as well as a full-length biography of Thomas E. Dewey, the man who was elected president in 1948 by everyone ... except the voters.

What, I wanted to know, did Richard Norton Smith think about the nature of the office, as we get ready to choose the first new chief executive of the millennium.

“There's nothing really magical about the presidency,” he said, relaxing on a couch in his office overlooking the Grand River. “It rises or falls with each occupant.”

What we have now, he thinks, is a “minimalist” presidency, one suited, perhaps, to a time when Americans' concerns are mostly local, and times are perceived as basically good. “I think one of the biggest reasons people are turned off to politics is they think it's been reduced to bad theater. That it's phony, staged.”

We in the media haven't helped. After the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, he sensed that, among the “journalists and semi-journalists” he appeared with, there seemed “some genuine regret that it wasn't more of a barroom brawl. They equate high-mindedness with dullness.”

Today, people are, indeed, not paying nearly as much attention to the presidency as they did in the eras of Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy - which, Mr. Smith notes, isn't all that strange. “When you are facing the threat of nuclear annihilation or a national economic crisis, naturally you are going to look to Washington. Things are very different now.”

That doesn't, however, mean that he thinks that we will never have another great president. “There are sort of natural swings of the pendulum. If there is another huge national crisis, naturally we are going to look to the presidency.

“I think one of the hallmarks of the presidency has been its resiliency. We've had failures in the White House - arguably, even a scoundrel or two,” he said, “as well as some well-intentioned men who were unraveled by events beyond their control. But I don't think we've had any who, in their heart of hearts, didn't wish well for the country.”

Times are different, and the office may seem diminished. Though there are more media outlets and news sources than ever, he notes, “the cultural tone” of the nation is certainly no higher than the 1950s. That two TV networks refused to carry the presidential debates is, for him, “a moral outrage.”

But when asked about the future, he smiled. “I'm an optimist. When we've had times of crisis, we've had, by and large, presidents who could get us to see beyond ourselves. The office has lasted, and has proven larger than any one occupant.”

I wasn't quite sure if that was the same as the old proverb that God watches out for “fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” But it sounded close enough.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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