AN ORDINARY MAN: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, by Historian Richard Norton Smith, will be Published This Week
A long-anticipated biography of Gerald R. Ford — the only president to come out of Michigan — will be released in Grand Rapids this Tuesday, April 11, followed by a Lansing appearance by the author, prize-winning historian Richard Norton Smith, two days later, on Thursday, April 13. The Lansing event will be in the Michigan Library and Historical Center, 702 W. Kalamazoo St., starting at 2 p.m.
What are other historians and experts saying about it?
“Richard Norton Smith has 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!”
— John Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, and Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
“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 thirty-eighth president. Rare is the history book that rewrites history. This is one.”
—Kristie Miller, author of Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies
“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
“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 thirty-eighth president and the graceful end to his ninety-three years. Rich in revelations and detail, it offers a definitive portrait of this extraordinary ‘ordinary man.'”
— Mark K. Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and author of Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency
Q&A between The Ballenger Report & Richard Norton Smith
TBR Question 1): Is this the first full-scale biography of President Ford that has been published by anyone?
Smith Answer 1): There are other Ford bios, including some of lasting significance, among which Jim Cannon’s comes to mind. But this is the first comprehensive (cradle to grave) book since the President’s death in 2006, and the first to draw on more than 200 interviews conducted by the author as well as by Ford’s co-writer on his presidential memoir, not to mention previously unavailable documents from Gerald Ford’s Baby Book to his mother’s divorce file and internal White House files.
TBR Question 2): You’ve written a plethora of blockbuster books, mainly biographies. You say the Rockefeller bio took 14 years and the Ford book maybe a decade. How long did your other, earlier bios take? The ones on Thomas E. Dewey, Col. Robert R. McCormick, George Washington, Herbert Hoover, and Harvard University? Of all these, do you have a personal favorite or one that you feel is the best?
Smith Answer 2): The Dewey book was researched in Rochester, NY, where his papers were housed, supplemented by 180 interviews and completed in 18 months. Doing it that quickly may be hard to believe, but that’s what you can do in your twenties. Needless to say, I have a soft spot in my heart for “The Dewey,” the first of several books written about previously neglected (or stereotyped) historical figures. The Rockefeller book had its roots in my watching as the Governor was nearly booed off the stage of the 1964 Republican national convention for daring to denounce political extremism. I was 10 years old at the time. Four years later, I was on the floor of that year’s (1968) convention, marching in the Rockefeller ranks after his name was placed in contention — and before his loss formalized the death of the party’s once dominant Eastern Establishment. I think the Ford book is the best work I’ve done in the four decades I have been trying to write biography that combines academic rigor with popular access. But in the end that will be up to the reader to decide.
TBR Question 3): You moved to Grand Rapids seven or eight years ago to finish your book on President Ford and got a condo overlooking the Ford Foundation facility. If so, how were you able to conduct all your interviews? Do you try to do it in person, or has Zoom and phone calls and/or email enabled you to have a lot of conversations that would have otherwise been much more difficult to achieve?
Smith Answer 3): I do all the interviews in person — the transcripts can be found online at the Gerald R. Ford Foundation. I’ve been fortunate enough to write about people and events that engaged me sufficiently that I was willing to let them take over my life. Imagine spending several years in the company of George Washington and his contemporaries! One of the wonderful things about being a historian is the option to live in the past, especially if the present seems barely livable.
TBR Question 4): Do your book projects seek you out, or do you decide whom you want to write on? What is your next project? Can you give us a hint?
Smith Answer 4): I’m currently at work on a comprehensive, highly personal — in other words, opinionated — history of the American presidency, complete with reassessments and confessions of changed minds where Jackson, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, and, yes, Millard Fillmore, are concerned.
Who is 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.
Smith’s Early Life and Education
Born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1953, Smith graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1975 with a degree in government. Following graduation he worked as a White House intern and as a freelance writer for The Washington Post. He became a speech-writer for Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, and then Senator Bob Dole, with whom he collaborated on numerous projects over the years.
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); and Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (1993). His 1997 biography of Robert R. McCormick, The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick received the Goldsmith Book Prize awarded by Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1998.
Between 1987 and 2001, 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, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Reagan Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California; and the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In December 2001, Smith became director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There he supervised construction of the Institute’s permanent home and launched a Presidential Lecture Series and other 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.
Also in 2001, Smith created Presidents and Patriots History Tours. Twice a year he leads historical tours emphasizing American presidents and history seldom found in the text books.
In 2009, Smith was invited by the US Congress to be one of two historians addressing it on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln‘s birth. Earlier, he delivered a eulogy at Gerald Ford‘s Michigan funeral, a role he repeated at Betty Ford‘s request when she was buried beside her husband in 2011.
In 2014 Smith published On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. Smith took 14 years to write the book and said that he spent about $250,000 of his own money on the project. In an interview with C-SPAN, he said that Random House provided an advance of $50,000 for the book.
Smith’s long-awaited biography of President Gerald R. Ford will be published on April 11, 2023.