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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 04:41 pm

Mr. Smith goes to Washington

Is he getting out while the getting is good?

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Richard Norton Smith leaves museum post next month
For Richard Norton Smith, departing director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, just one thing is certain in his professional life. After leaving Springfield at the end of March, Smith will become a scholar in residence at George Mason University, in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The part-time post pays $30,000 a year, a tenth of what he’s been making in Illinois and also a pittance in comparison with his previous salaries at such institutions as the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Michigan and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Kansas. He says that the academic post will allow him time to finish a biography of Nelson Rockefeller. So far, that’s it. The man who has spent the past 20 years heading up libraries and museums for Republican presidents and one presidential wannabe has no other guaranteed gig, although he says that he has irons in various fires. One is serving as a consultant to the private foundation that raises funds for the museum and library in downtown Springfield. Susan Mogerman, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, says that a contract with Smith hasn’t been signed. Smith also says that he plans to conduct a review of the presidential-library system for the National Archives, but nothing is official yet. A National Archives spokeswoman says that a contract hasn’t been signed. This marks the first time in nearly 20 years that Smith has left a job without having another one lined up. In a batch of sometimes-spirited e-mails to Illinois Times, he says that he’ll end up just fine. He bristles at the words “sabbatical” and “job.”
 “My previous jobs, and the credibility/visibility they have gained for me over the years, affords what may appear to be odd or simply a luxury — i.e., escaping the all-consuming demands of an administrative/organizational/fundraising model which I have been engaged in, more or less nonstop, for over 18 years, and do exactly what I want to do: above all, write, teach, consult and speak,” he writes. “I have several speaking engagements lined up and have been told to expect more once I put down roots in D.C. The same holds true with television and other work, some which is already under discussion. What all this illustrates is not a sabbatical . . . but a newfound freedom to pick and choose among professional opportunities, all the while keeping in mind the overriding priority of finishing the Rockefeller biography by the summer of 2007.” OK, let’s just say that he’s following his bliss. Smith is leaving behind an institution that has succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations, including his own. The museum is on pace to draw 600,000 visitors in its first year of operation, double what was forecast. He’s credited with drawing such intellectuals as historian David McCullough to Springfield for lectures. And he’s resurrected private fundraising efforts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, which was an organization in name only when Smith came to town in 2003. What lies ahead, however, could be as challenging, if not more so, than getting the museum open. Known for its Disneyesque displays, the institution is expensive to operate compared with other presidential libraries and museums. The annual budget is about $9 million. By contrast, the annual budgets for other presidential libraries and museums administered by the National Archives in fiscal year 2004 ranged from $1.8 million (Herbert Hoover) to $4.8 million (Ronald Reagan). Unlike these institutions, the Lincoln museum in Springfield gets no federal money for operating costs. Despite sky-high attendance, gate receipts, which stood at slightly more than $2.5 million in mid-December, aren’t nearly enough to pay costs, so state and private funding must make up the difference. The state isn’t likely to pony up for new bells and whistles, so if the museum wants fresh attractions to keep folks coming back, private donors will have to pay for them. The museum foundation hasn’t raised sufficient cash to have an acquisition fund, so it must rely on gifts from collectors of Lincoln artifacts. The foundation is banking on the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009 to attract media attention and donations. No one has ever accused Smith of lacking ambition — in three years, he hopes to digitize every document that ever crossed Lincoln’s desk so that the Great Emancipator’s papers will be available to scholars worldwide by way of the Internet. It’s an enormously expensive and time-consuming process that requires the organization and indexing of tens of thousands of documents. It’s also the sort of thing that would make Feb. 12, 2009, more than just a date and would presumably increase the museum’s stature and national reputation, not to mention the public appetite for all things Lincoln. Smith, however, won’t be here to ride herd, and a successor has not been named. Although Smith says that he’s already done a lot of behind-the-scenes planning and expects to visit Springfield often as a consultant, he acknowledges that the whole thing could go south. After all, promoters of other historic anniversaries haven’t exactly captured the national imagination. “It can become just another excuse for wreath-laying, indifferent public oratory, self-congratulation and another costume ball in the Old State Capitol,” he says. “In other words, if the same level of imagination is applied to the Lincoln bicentenary that, at its best, characterizes the exhibits and programs of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, then I believe Illinois can defy the recent and disappointing tradition that includes the American bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, the disastrous Columbus quincentenary, and the uneven Lewis and Clark commemorations.”
Julie Cellini, who sits on the foundation board, says a national search to find a replacement for Smith could take as long as six months. Cellini, who is also a member of a federal advisory committee on the Lincoln bicentennial, says it’s too early to talk publicly about bicentennial plans, and there will be plenty of time for a new director to put a mark on the occasion. “It’s still three years away,” she says.
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