The Five-Minute Interview: Richard Norton Smith

Posted: July 19, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Richard Nortton Smith
Richard Norton Smith

Richard Norton Smith is a scholar-in-residence in the School of Public Policy and the Department of History and Art History.

Since 1987, he has run six institutions for former presidents and top political figures. He is a nationally recognized expert on the American presidency and appears regularly on C-Span and “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” as part of the show’s roundtable of historians.

Smith is working on a biography of Nelson Rockefeller and will be teaching a history course, “42 Men: the Personal Presidency from Washington to Bush,” at Mason this fall.

For the five-minute interview, we asked him to complete the sentences below.

If I wasn’t talking to you right now, I’d be … wallowing in Latin American politics for the 1940s while simultaneously struggling to distinguish between a Modigliani and a Motherwell.

I wish people would take more notice of … each other.

The last book I enjoyed was … ”The Battle for Spain,” by Antony Beevor.

A high point of my career so far has been … next to joining the Mason community, probably the feeling of holding in my hands the first copy of my first book, “Thomas E. Dewey and His Times.”

The worst president we’ve ever had was … a tossup between Franklin Pierce, who perversely helped bring on the Civil War, and Andrew Johnson, who squandered the moral high ground achieved through oceans of blood and set back the cause of racial justice in this country by a century.

The best president we’ve ever had … depends. Without Washington there would not, arguably, be a United States as we know it. Without Lincoln there would not be a union of states or a “new birth of freedom” to inspire global aspirations. Without FDR there might not be democratic capitalism at home or abroad. That said, I must confess to a sneaking, if contradictory, admiration for both Woodrow Wilson the moralist, and Calvin Coolidge the minimalist.

I’m very bad at … five-minute interviews.

In a nutshell, my philosophy is … I’m not sure any philosophy fits in a nutshell. Or on a bumper sticker, though I see plenty of attempts. Perhaps a combination of Emersonian self-reliance, with the founders’ civic religion, an unfashionable belief in moderation and a healthy skepticism of Utopias, Ultimate Answers and priggish self-regard.

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