“I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in history,” said Richard Norton Smith, who grew up enjoying the stories of his grandparents. On Wednesday, November 2, at 7:30 p.m., Smith will speak for the second annual George Gibson Lecture Series on “Presidential Leadership: Does Character Matter?”
A widely acclaimed author, political commentator and respected expert on the American presidency, Smith is a noted historian who has has directed four presidential libraries. “I was lucky to be around elderly people who were storytellers and brought the past to life—they were great historians and great teachers,” Smith said. “My grandparents spoke about times like WWI and the New England Great Hurricane of 1938.”
Smith describes history as the “most dramatic and powerful discipline.” He believes history teachers must have an appreciation for natural drama” because “how you tell the story is as important as the story itself.”
“There are people who reduce history to names and dates,” he said. “I was lucky to have family members and teachers who spun my interest into something more than a timeline.”
His talk will focus on the significance of character being the essence of presidential leadership—and how at times our own beliefs about critical characteristics for a commander-in-chief prove to be counterintuitive. “There were times in history that presidents subordinated their interest for national interest because their principles came into conflict with the larger picture,” Smith said. “The characters of past presidents have been challenged and compromised for the sake of the nation, and this conflict recurs within our history.”
“I’m looking forward to Smith’s historical perspective on presidential leadership—and character in particular,” said Mark Robison, Chair of the Division of Humanities and coordinator of the lecture series. “That perspective is sorely needed in this election cycle”.
“If we looked more at character, not as many people would be misled or swayed by either side,” said Christopher Banks, director of Union’s international relations program. “Because very few people look at character as a quality of presidential leadership, they do not understand the key components of what’s needed in choosing the President of the United States,” said Christopher Banks director of Union’s international relations program.
From a precocious young boy keenly listening to his grandparent’s narration, Smith has become a presidential historian, called by The White House “a nationally recognized authority on the American presidency.” He was born in Leominster, Mass., in 1953, and he graduated from Harvard University in 1975 with a major in government. Smith authored an autobiographical collaboration with Senators Bob Dole and Elizabeth Dole, Unlimited Partners. He has also written biographies of his own, including Thomas E. Dewey and His Times, which was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize; An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (1984); The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation (1986); and Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (1993). In June 1997, Houghton Mifflin published Smith’s The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, which received the prestigious Goldsmith Prize awarded by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School.
Over the course of 14 years, Smith further developed his presidential knowledge serving as director of four presidential libraries: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa; Dwight D. Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kan.; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation as well as Reagan Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, Calif.; and the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Mich.
As an in-house historian for C-Span, Smith developed popular television series on America’s presidential libraries, the First Ladies, and fifteen White House contenders who made an impact on the country despite never being elected president. He has also taught courses and served as Scholar in Residence at George Mason University.
The George Gibson Lecture Series at Union College was created in 2015 to honor retired professor of history, Dr. George Gibson, who taught for more than 30 years in Union’s Division of Humanities. Gibson dreamed of starting a lecture series addressing history and current events. Thanks to a generous gift from alumnus Rod Colburn and a matching gift from his employer, Goldman Sachs, the series is a dream come true and is progressing into its second year.
Smith’s lecture, “Presidential Leadership: Does Character Matter?” will take place on November 2, 2016, at 7:30 p.m. in Heartland Hall at College View Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church is located at the corner of 48th and Prescott on the campus of Union College. The George Gibson Lecture Series is free and open to the public.
By Latifer James, student writer