An upcoming presidential lecture series at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics will be a homecoming for the institute’s first full-time director.
Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and former director of several presidential libraries, will return to present his four choices for a “20th century Mount Rushmore.”
Smith was named as first director of the Dole Institute in 2001 and helped to oversee the building’s $11.3 million construction. He has returned to the institute a couple of times since his departure in 2003 to become the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.
But Smith said he had spoken with current Dole Institute director Bill Lacy often over the years about a series of lectures at the institute, and Lacy settled on the annual presidential lecture series — which Smith founded — as a good fit.
“Richard is such a big person in Lawrence and a renowned historian,” Lacy said. “I just thought this would be a great time to do it.”
After all, Smith said, February is a traditional time to play the academic parlor game of ranking presidents.
He expects some lively conversation on his four nominations — Ronald Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kansas’ native son Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“I’m not suggesting that these four presidents were all wholly successful,” Smith said. “What I’m suggesting is that there’s some historical significance here to their presidencies.”
Smith will discuss all four presidents in an informal conversation with Lacy in the coming weeks at the Dole Institute. He said the case could clearly be made for other choices, too, such as Harry Truman, for example.
Smith said he appreciated the informal, conversation-style approach the institute has taken with recent programs that would be mimicked in several of his own presentations.
“Good conversation is an art, and if the Dole Institute can foster it, so much the better,” Smith said.
Lacy said he anticipated the program would be well-received.
“I think there is a fascination with our presidents,” Lacy said. “Whether they were successful or flawed, there is a tremendous amount of interest in them.”
Smith said he’s looking forward to his return.
“It’s wonderful to see how the institute has taken off,” Smith said. “I think Bill and his colleagues have done a tremendous job of realizing the vision of the institute.”
The institute also has met with Dole’s original vision — that it not be a dry, academic place to view his senatorial papers, but instead, that it be a vibrant place that’s alive, inclusive, contemporary, bipartisan and open to the public.
“It’s become a real jewel of the university,” Smith said.
Lacy said he was looking forward to the program and to having Smith return for an extended lecture series.
“It’s always great to have him back,” Lacy said of Smith. “He is the guy who envisioned the Dole Institute and what it is today.”