Richard Norton Smith Reflects on Sept. 11 in Life’s Commemorative Book

Posted: September 11, 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, scholar-in-residence in the Department of History and Art History and the School of Public Policy, calls the memory of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, “a low-grade fever, spiking every time a fragment of memory is recovered.”

He makes this remark in his introductory essay to the 2006 re-issue of Life’s “One Nation,” commemorating the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.

An expert on the American presidency and former director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., Smith brings a historical perspective to the introduction in the book, relating the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath to other key tragedies and events in American history.

Looking at events such as Pearl Harbor, the bombing of the USS Maine, President McKinley’s assassination and the Cold War, Smith says that like other tragedies in our history, “September 11 altered many a life. But it didn’t change human nature.”

When one reflects on the past, says Smith, “history affords more than perspective; it supplies solace arising from the example of earlier Americans who had overcome challenges every bit as daunting as the prospect before us.”

In the essay, which the editors at Time/Life invited him to write, Smith speculates on what have we learned from the tragedy after five years and how the event changed our nation. He points to the dispute over plans for Ground Zero to commemorate the tragedy for later generations as an example of where the terrorists failed in their mission.

“The uproar over the future of Ground Zero provides evidence of just how badly the terrorists miscalculated,” says Smith, who has been approached for his opinion and knowledge by planners of the proposed International Freedom Center. “It has often been said that jihadists, not content to kill Americans, want to kill the American way of life. What is more American than the right to disagree?”

In the conclusion to the essay, Smith writes, “Those whom we lost in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon have become part of a proud continuum, destined to inspire the great virtues demanded by great necessities. ‛No one you love is ever dead,’ wrote Ernest Hemingway. What holds true for individuals applies with equal force to ideals.”

Smith has headed 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.

He has published numerous books, including “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). His book, “Thomas E. Dewey and His Times,” was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize.

The commemorative issue of “One Nation” is available now in bookstores and online.

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