Richard Norton Smith is at the top tier of American presidential historians. He is the author of the highly acclaimed new biography: An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.
Smith is widely recognized for his regular appearances on the PBS News Hour, as well as a historical commentator on CBS and other networks. He’s a familiar and beloved guide to history on CSPAN.
In this episode of the Serve to Lead podcast, Smith discusses his new book, including its genesis and the many parallels and connections between President Ford’s era and our own.
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From the preeminent presidential scholar and acclaimed biographer of historical figures including George Washington, Herbert Hoover, and Nelson Rockefeller comes this eye-opening life of Gerald R. Ford, whose presidency arguably set the course for post-liberal America and a post-Cold War world.
For many Americans, President Gerald Ford was the genial accident of history who controversially pardoned his Watergate-tarnished predecessor, presided over the fall of Saigon, and became a punching bag on Saturday Night Live. Yet as Richard Norton Smith reveals in a book full of surprises, Ford was an underrated leader whose tough decisions and personal decency look better with the passage of time.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents, Smith recreates Ford’s hardscrabble childhood in Michigan, his early anti-establishment politics and lifelong love affair with the former Betty Bloomer, whose impact on American culture he predicted would outrank his own. As president, Ford guided the nation through its worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War and broke the back of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression—accomplishing both with little fanfare or credit (at least until 2001 when the JFK Library gave him its prestigious Profile in Courage Award in belated recognition of the Nixon pardon).
Less coda than curtain raiser, Ford's administration bridged the Republican pragmatism of Eisenhower and Nixon and the more doctrinaire conservatism of Ronald Reagan. His introduction of economic deregulation would transform the American economy, while his embrace of the Helsinki Accords hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Illustrated with sixteen pages of black-and-white photos, this definitive biography, a decade in the making, will change history’s views of a man whose warning about presidential arrogance (“God help the country”) is more relevant than ever.
“Richard Norton Smith had brought a lifetime of wisdom, insight, and storytelling verve to the life of a consequential president—Gerald R. Ford. Ford’s is a very American life, and Smith has charted its vicissitudes and import with great grace and illuminating perspective. A marvelous achievement!” — Jon Meacham
“Gerald Ford is probably remembered more for how he got to the presidency than for what he did there. In this brilliant book, Richard Norton Smith tells the rest of the story. On every other page I found something I didn’t know, bringing new and important insights into how Ford kept the nation together and moved it past its most severe political crisis since the Civil War. It will become the definitive work on Ford and his presidency.' — Bob Schieffer, CBS News
'Richard Norton Smith's monumental An Ordinary Man is a comprehensive, brilliant biography of Gerald Ford; solidly researched, crisply written, both objective and persuasive. . . . This is the definitive work on Ford that will stand the test of time.' — Douglas Brinkley, author of Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening
“This book is a page-turner! With a propulsive narrative style, grounded in exhaustive research, Smith’s biography of Gerald Ford offers surprising insights into our underestimated 38th president. Rare is the history book that rewrites history. This is one.' — Kristie Miller, author of Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies
'In his groundbreaking biography, Richard Norton Smith elegantly captures Gerald R. Ford, from his Midwestern beginnings, prosaic with twists of tempestuousness, to his accidental though consequential turn as our 38th president, and the graceful end to his 93 years. Rich in revelations and detail, Smith offers a definitive portrait of this extraordinary 'ordinary man.'' — Mark K. Updegrove, president & CEO of the LBJ Foundation and author of Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency
About Richard Norton Smith
Richard Norton Smith is a nationally recognized authority on the American presidency and a familiar face to viewers of C-SPAN, as well as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Following graduation from Harvard in 1975, he worked as a White House intern and a speech writer for Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke. In 1979 he went to work for Senator Bob Dole, with whom he collaborated on several volumes of autobiography and political humor.
Smith’s first major book, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times, was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. He has also written An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (1984), The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation (1986), Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (1993), The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, which received the prestigious Goldsmith Prize awarded by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, and has been described by Hilton Kramer as “the best book ever written about the press.” In October 2014 Random House published On His Own Terms, a monumental life of Nelson Rockefeller described by Douglas Brinkley as “one of the greatest cradle-to-grave biographies written in the past 50 years,” and tagged in advance by Amazon as one of the fall’s Twenty Big Books in Biography and Memoir.
Between 1987 and 2001, Mr. Smith served as Director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas; the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Reagan Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California; the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Michigan respectively.
In December, 2001 Mr. Smith became director of the new Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There he supervised construction of the Institute's $11.3 million permanent home and launched a Presidential Lecture Series and other high-profile programs. In October, 2003 he was appointed the first Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a four-building complex in Springfield, Illinois. The Library opened to the public in 2004 and the Museum opened the next year.
Much in demand as a speaker, in 2009 Smith was invited by Congress to be one of two historians addressing it on the two hundred anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Earlier, millions of television viewers heard him deliver the final eulogy at Gerald Ford’s Michigan funeral, a role he repeated at Betty Ford’s request when she was laid to rest beside her husband in 2011. Twice a year he personally leads historical tours (www.presidentsandpatriots.com) emphasizing American presidents and history rarely found in the text books.
Image Credit | Author photo, richardnortonsmith.com.