Reagan Library Ends Think Tank Plan, Stresses Public Events : Institutions: New director is hired to oversee the change of focus. A speaker series is among programs to be developed.

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The private foundation that built the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near here is abandoning its plans to develop a public policy think tank in favor of sponsoring more event-oriented programs with popular appeal.

Officials said the recent appointment of historian and biographer Richard Norton Smith as the new director of the Reagan Center for Public Affairs represents a shift from the initial goals of the center to tackle tough public policy issues.

“It’s a change of focus,” said John J. Midgley, who Smith will replace as the center’s director. “And it’s a change that in many respects is consistent with other presidential libraries.”


Midgley said Smith, now director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum in Iowa, will focus more on special events and exhibits with mass appeal to boost library attendance.

“This is clearly his expertise,” Midgley said. “He is the embodiment of this approach.”

Smith is the organizer of an exhibit now at the Reagan library. The display, “Our Presidents: From Washington to Clinton,” features mementos from all 41 presidents, including John Adams’ silver baby rattle to Abraham Lincoln’s straight razor and shaving mirror.

Smith, who takes over his new job on Nov. 8, said he is planning a speaker series that will include national and international figures.

He said the center’s programs would encourage rather than exclude public participation by featuring “real people, interesting practitioners, rather than theorists and academics.”

“We want to bring the library to life for people who don’t have Ph.D.s,” Smith said. “I’m more interested in appealing to the general public.”

Midgley said he is leaving because of the board’s decision to change direction of the center. “I’m a political scientist,” Midgley said. “I’m more interested in current events, major policy issues. This is not something that requires my skills.”


A former scholar at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Midgley was sought out to launch the Reagan Center for Public Affairs as a conservative research and public policy institute.

Two conferences were planned this year but later canceled.