WARREN - Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith didn't offer any opinions on President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in his Trumbull Town Hall lecture Wednesday at Packard Music Hall.
However, he did offer some guidance for those trying to decide who to pick.
''There are two questions voters should ask of any presidential candidate: 'Is there any principle more important than winning the election?' and 'Do you know who you are?,' because the White House can be a lonely place to find out,'' Smith said.
Presidents have to be willing to make decisions for the good of the nation that may hurt their poll numbers, such as John F. Kennedy's blockade of Cuba, Lyndon Johnson's civil rights efforts, Richard Nixon's trip to China and Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, Smith said.
George H.W. Bush could have scored easy political points and received a boost in the polls by heading to Germany for a photo op when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Instead, he realized he needed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's support in the reunification effort of Germany and the U.S. conflict with Iraq, so he didn't exploit the moment.
Few presidents had a lower popularity rating during their term than Harry S. Truman. A commonly heard phrase during his tenure was, ''To err is Truman.''
But, as his presidency has been reassessed, Smith said, ''Harry Truman came to be seen as the real deal.''
Smith has written books on Presidents George Washington and Herbert Hoover and served as director of the presidential libraries of Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
He said the most important quality for a biographer is humility because ''They engage in the God-like act of recreating life ... Humility has never been a problem for me. The distance between my books and the best sellers list guarantees that.''
Smith said the attack ads and charges of media bias that voters bemoan today are nothing new. He cited claims that rape, murder and adultery would be rampant if Thomas Jefferson was elected and charges that John Adams secretly arranged the marriage of one of his children to one of King George III's heir to reunify the United States under English rule.
When President Warren G. Harding died in a San Francisco hotel room in 1923, there was speculation that he was poisoned by his wife for his philandering. Eventually, Smith said, ''There was consensus that she didn't, but she should have.''
Smith said character matters in a president, and a sense of humor is a valuable asset. He cited Reagan as a president who used humor effectively. Reagan also used television to his advantage, Smith said, the same way Franklin D. Roosevelt used radio.
Current and future presidents face a different challenge in an era of cable news and Internet and 24/7 news cycles.
''The single-greatest challenge posed to the modern presidency is over-exposure,'' he said.