Hey Richard Norton Smith, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself

0104_historians_bh Richard N. Smith admitted today, in an interview on C-SPAN that he has not voted in the last two presidential elections.  Smith was interviewed by Brian Lamb along with Douglas Brinkley to put the ’08 Campaign in historical perspective.  So, why does Smith not vote?  He prefaced his comments by saying, “I think it is important not to lie to people.”  Smith believes that it would compromise his position as historical adviser for PBS’s Newshour campaign coverage, which he has done for the last eight years. Smith said something to the effect that he felt conflicted between having to answer questions about his personal political views and his role as historical adviser for PBS.  Apparently his political-historical commentary is somehow rendered more legitimate because Smith does not vote.  Can someone please tell me how such a position trumps your civic duty to vote at a time when we are lucky to get 52% of eligible voters to the polls?  C’mon..the guy writes presidential biographies for crying out loud.

22 responses... add one

Um, huh? Ahem. I’m at a loss to even think of how his casting a secret ballot would in any way affect his position as a historical analyst. A polite but firm reply to the effect that his political views are irrelevant to his role as a historian should be sufficient. Beyond that, has he ever been asked the question? I agree, Kevin. He should be ashamed.

John

Casting a vote would require that he choose between the candidates, and siding with one over the others would compromise his ability to analyze the person he voted for critically. There would be bias, no matter how well intentioned, so I agree with his decision.

A historian who doesn’t vote reminds me of the priest who lectures on maintaining a loving marriage….

Michael, — As a high school history teacher I also provide my students with information about the candidates along with relevant historical context. Are you suggesting that I ought to refrain from voiting so as to protect my objectivity? My job is much more important than Smith’s.

He’s also served in directorship roles for at least four NARA-run presidential libraries, and for a number of other presidential history-related institutions. I didn’t see the C_SPAN interview so I can’t comment on his exact words, but if he said that he doesn’t vote in order to keep from holding a bias within his political-historical commentary– well, I think that’s a bit disingenuous. You don’t have to cast a ballot in order to have a bias towards one candidate, and any professional in the field should be able to separate his personal beliefs from historical appraisal and commentary.

When I hear stuff like this I’m reminded of C. Vann Woodward’s reply to those who accused him of writing history with a purpose. Guilty as charged, he answered. What’s the alternative: writing history without a purpose?

Smith, presumably, likes to think that he could plead innocent. But of course, someone could easily challenge his objectivity: ok, so he doesn’t vote, but do you really believe that means that this long-time associate and co-author of Bob Dole’s doesn’t have some preferences?

The correct answer to that insinuation is that it doesn’t matter one whit. He could never prove that he’s perfectly objective to someone disposed to believe otherwise. So what? The test of good analysis is … whether it’s good analysis. Does it get the facts right? Does it pick out the pertinent ones? Does it put them together in a persuasive and enlightening way?

Knowing whom he voted for in 2000 or 2004 doesn’t tell me anything about that.

Jim Lehrer several years back famously also admitted to not voting. Must be a PBS thing.

There is actually plenty of historical precedent, at least in the military. Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall, for example, never voted when they were active duty officers. They saw it as a conflict of interest. That viewpoint was quite prevalent among officers of that era.

Regards,
Cash

Hiram Hover lives! So nice to hear from you.

Mark, — I did not know that.

Cash, — Perhaps I can see this particular stance in the military, but that doesn’t change my view of Smith in one bit. Thanks.

GCM and DDE were both career RA; their POV was a direct outgrowth of the professionalization of the Army (under Upton and others) in the late 19th Century and – in part – a reaction to the unavoidable politicization of the USA/USV officer corps during the Civil War.

I don’t see that in Mr. Smith’s case; moreover, I really don’t see how a historian can study history without participating in it – that’s a little too monkish for my taste.

Again, the RC priest who lectures about maintaining a loving marriage comes to mind.

I couldn’t agree more. Smith’s stance is highly admirable in principle, but a little bizarre in practice. Letting your political opinions determine your interpretation of evidence is a big no-no, but simply holding those opinions and exercising them in the privacy of the voting booth is not only permissible but is a basic right. Get to the polls, Richard. We won’t tell anybody.

Michael Lynch

Great point Michael. I don’t believe Smith is any more objective simply because he chooses not to vote. One must assume that he still has political convictions.

Wow. With so much at stake in nearly every election, not voting is almost criminal. It’s a paradox, but the freedom not to vote actually requires voting. If you don’t vote, you’re freedom could be lost. Shame on Mr. Smith. – TL

Larry, — Well, if he is the kind of guy who likes to Google his name he is going to find this post on the first page.

Why vote when I do not like or trust either candidate ? Why vote the ” lesser of two evils ” ? Give me a candidate worthy of my vote and he will get it. My vote is to valuable to give to someone that does not deserve it. When democrats and republicans learn to work together for the betterment of America, then and only then will I give them my vote. People will say ” It’s your patriotic duty to vote “, no it’s my patriotic duty to vote for whats best for America.

William

William: You are doing exactly what negative campaign propopents want you to do. If you get disgusted with the system and don’t vote, then an election is easier to manipulate. Voting the lesser of two evils at least helps prevent the bigger evil. That’s something. So get off your duff and go prevent a worse evil than what otherwise might occur! Do it because you’re mad at me. – TL

Although I admire Mr. Smith’s writings and commentary, his excuse seems a bit contrived. However, the freedom to vote includes the freedom not to vote. Then again, freedom brings responsibility. When elections are as close as some of the more recent ones, it seems almost criminal not to vote. cgo

I agree with you Levin, this does seem a little ironic that a presidential historian would refuse to vote. If his lack of responsibility is due to his position at PBS that seems a little ridiculous, though this conversation came up in the vice presidential debate. The comparison isn’t 100% the same, but I was wondering if you found it irresponsible for Gwen Ifill to be put in the position that she was regarding her book and the fairness of her moderating.

Elliott, — Nice to hear from you. Regarding Gwen Ifill, I didn’t have a problem with her moderating the debate since by all accounts it didn’t effect her treatment of the candidates. Ifill is a veteran debate moderator who clearly understands her responsibility to her viewers.

I also felt that she did a good job of being unbiased and didn’t allow her views to change the debate. I had just noticed that these two ideas were roughly related and they were both from PBS. PS- I’m coming home on Thursday for fall break and I was going to stop by STAB to visit a select few of the ol’ professors. When is the best free period or break to stop by??

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