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From Ford to Chrysler, It’s Been Quite a Ride for Smith

Published: October 13, 2008

Craig Smith 2008

Photo by Victoria Sanchez

Without a doubt, elections are a great time for political junkies. Craig Smith is a political junkie.

“I love this time of year and it’s interesting to see how it goes through phases,” said Smith, the chair for Film and Electronic Arts. “In the primaries, people vote their heart and in the general election they vote their head and so sometimes you get a candidate that is very emotional that people get attached to, then they say ‘wait a minute, I shouldn’t have done that, we need the sensible [candidate now].

“It’s great to watch the shifts that take place. By Labor Day, 90 percent of the people have already had their mind made up,” he continued. “It’s that swing 10 percent that they (candidates) fight over at the end. They have so refined the science now the candidates don’t even run ads in states they know they’re not going to win. They take all their money and they spend it in the swing states. We’re not going to see much campaigning here in California. If you called either the McCain or Obama headquarters and you asked ‘what can I do?’ they would say ‘move to Nevada’ because that’s close and you’ll matter in Nevada.’”

The author of more than 50 scholarly articles and 15 books, Smith’s beginnings in politics can clearly be traced back to his youth. In fact, it isn’t surprising that his first vivid political memory was of President-elect Harry S. Truman holding the Chicago Tribune with its front page headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” on Nov. 3, 1948. The headline got it wrong, of course, but Smith’s father got it right.

“As a child, my father was very much interested in politics and I remember the radio coverage of the Dewey and Truman campaign,” said Smith. “My father was so excited about the election because he had bet on Truman and he won long odds and I think that was the beginning of my involvement.”

Years later, Smith became student body president at Sweetwater High School in San Diego and, while working on his doctorate at Penn State, was hired as an intern with CBS, which eventually led to his appointment as a consulting researcher/writer for the network. That amplified his interest in politics all the more, but his career revved into high gear in 1976. That’s when he became a speechwriter for President Gerald Ford, a position that, as he put it, “certainly cemented things” and no doubt opened a number of doors.

So how does one become a speechwriter for a sitting president? Well, in Smith’s case it was like his own personal perfect storm. After giving a guest lecture at the University of North Carolina, he and some colleagues went to watch a speech given by Ford at the college later that evening.

“We heard the president’s speech and it was awful,” remembered Smith. “To kind of purge myself of the experience, I wrote a five-page letter to the president at The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The letter was a kind of a rhetorical criticism of his speech. I figured they would just throw it in the trash and nothing would happen.”

And that’s probably what would have happened had it not been for that funny thing called fate, this time in the form of a resignation by one of Ford’s speechwriters the day before Smith’s letter arrived.

“I got a call a week later from the director of White House personnel,” said Smith. “My letter got fished out by somebody in the mail room, who thought they should see the letter. I don’t know who, but I owe them a lot. They called some people around the country to check on my credentials to figure out who I was and then invited me up for the interview.”

After a day of interviews, Smith met with President Ford who was told that, pending security clearance, he would be his new speechwriter.

“I don’t know if anybody has ever been hired that way before,” acknowledged Smith, “but it was pretty magical and, of course, once you’re a presidential speechwriter, that opens the door to all kinds of other things.”

After Ford was voted out of office, Smith returned to academia at the University of Alabama, a perch from which he also worked on a Senate race in 1978. His involvement in the better-than-expected showing led to his being hired as the director of Senate Services for the Republican caucus of the U.S. Senate.

In February 1980 he left that post to run a senatorial campaign in Oregon which was successful and led to Smith becoming the Senatorial campaign committee’s deputy director.

“Then Lee Iacocca stole me away,” said Smith of the Chrysler CEO. “He was a friend of Gerald Ford’s and he asked [Ford] if he could recommend a speechwriter because he needed one. Ford recommended me, which was very nice. So, I went away for a year to Detroit to work for Iacocca, but I didn’t like living in Detroit and I didn’t like the business world so when the opportunity came along for me to be president for the Freedom of Expression Foundation, I took that job in Washington, D.C. The foundation was formed by the networks and leading newspapers such as the New York Times, L.A. Times and Washington Post. After five years, we had achieved our legislative goals and the board agreed to my request to make the foundation a purely research organization and move it to a campus. That was 1988 and we brought the foundation to CSULB in the form of the Center for First Amendment Studies.”

Smith began a 20-year career at CSULB that will move to semi-retirement next July, when he leaves the CSU Board of Trustees and the chairmanship of the Film and Electronic Arts Department to spend more time on the center and teaching.

“I love teaching more than anything else,” he said. “When I came to Long Beach in 1988 I thought it would be like all the other jobs I had had up until then. That I would be here three, four, five years and then move on. But it was a match made in heaven and I have been here 20 years.”

Smith, who is a well-known and insightful political commentator across the nation, is also a busy lecturer. Recently, he gave a lecture on the Queen Mary for the Rotary Club and was a guest lecturer at the University of Wisconsin on Sept. 27, following the first presidential debate on Sept. 26. He is scheduled to lecture at Cal State Fullerton on Oct. 16, at Sierra Nevada College on Oct. 20 at the request of former CSULB President Robert Maxson, and before the CSULB’s Orange County Alumni Association on Oct. 29. In addition, he does numerous radio interviews, regularly commentating on KFWB and KPCC in Los Angeles.

So, what’s up next for Smith, who has spent much of his 20-year career at CSULB as chair in the departments of Communication Studies, Comparative Literature and Classics, Journalism and, of course, Film and Electronic Arts?

“In July I’m going into faculty early retirement program,” he said. “I’m in my last year as the chair of the Film and Electronic Arts Department and the last year on the board of trustees, so it’s a good time for me to go into the FERP program. At that point my duty will be to run the Center for First Amendment Studies, so I will continue to do that. I want to give it more of my full time.”