Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In the Arena 4

I have two items for my blog post today on Richard Nixon's In the Arena.

1.  On page 125, Nixon talks about the importance of the President meeting with the Cabinet, the National Security Council, leaders within the legislature, and other groups.  Nixon states that meetings can waste time unless people come to them with an agenda, which was why he usually "had the other participants submit their ideas in writing before the meeting began."  Nixon did not want for meetings to be places where the President would have to consider a bunch of half-baked ideas.  Later in the book, on page 137, Nixon says that the process of writing can force an adviser submitting an idea to think through the idea "more carefully", that "Bad ideas and superficial thinking are almost always exposed in the stark black and white of the typewritten word", and that reading ideas on paper rather than listening to them can negate the impact of "spoken eloquence", presumably allowing the reader to focus more on substance.

While Nixon on pages 125 and 137 affirms that reading ideas takes less time than hearing them in an oral briefing, Nixon does not think that the President should "dispense with meetings altogether".  For one, Nixon says, "many executives retain information better when it is presented orally."  Second, Nixon states that officials need to "show and tell", and that Presidents themselves need to preside over Cabinet meetings rather than sending their Vice-Presidents to do so because Cabinet officers, whom Nixon says "have big egos", would not show up to the meeting if the President is not presiding over it, sending their deputies instead.  Third, meetings allow for free discussion and disagreement, and Nixon says that "Sometimes only the clash between two good ideas will produce a better one."  But Nixon also wants for meetings to follow a tight agenda, and he does not particularly find bull sessions to be productive uses of time: "A bull session generally produces precisely what you expect a bull to produce" (page 126).  And fourth, Nixon says that Cabinet meetings allow the staff and Cabinet to feel like they're on a team.  Nixon states: "It doesn't do any good for a quarterback to call a good play if the linemen don't know which way to block."

The reason that these discussions in In the Arena stood out to me is that I was thinking about where they overlapped with and where they conflicted with other things that Nixon and others say about the way that Nixon ran his Administration.  On the one hand, Nixon in his memoirs states that he thought a number of meetings were a waste of time, and he presents his attempts to circumvent meetings as a path to greater efficiency.  A number of Nixon's biographers contend that Nixon did not work that often with his Cabinet or with legislators.  Regarding his Cabinet, Nixon handled a lot of his foreign policy with Henry Kissinger while excluding his Secretary of State (something that Nixon in later years of his life would regret, if I remember Monica Crowley's Nixon in Winter correctly).  On domestic issues, Nixon allowed his Cabinet to have a relatively free hand, and that permitted his Cabinet to pursue a progressive agenda that has impressed many liberal revisionists who look back and praise the Nixon Administration.  On the other hand, Nixon did meet with people: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, Colson, others, etc.  Nixon also had people with different ideological persuasions among his advisers, and that allowed for there to be debate (see here).

Speaking for myself personally, I am mixed when it comes to how I like to absorb information.  As an introvert and as one who tends to be socially-awkward, I prefer to communicate with people through e-mail.  But do I absorb information better through listening or through reading?  My mind can easily wander through both, to tell you the truth, and that's something I'm working on.

2.  On page 140, Nixon states within his chapter on reading: "One of the most difficult questions to answer is to advise someone what to read.  I happen to prefer history, biography, and philosophy.  But I agree with columnist Murray Kempton, a prolific reader who recently told me that one should not rule out great novels.  You can learn more about the revolutionary forces that convulsed Russia in the nineteenth century from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than from the turgid scholarly histories of the period.  And some of the better current novels are a more accurate portrayal of real life than most of the narrow and biased tomes emanating from the ivory towers of academia."

What should I read?  I read a lot nowadays, but do I read the right stuff?  You may remember the movie Good Will Hunting, in which the Matt Daimon character is telling his therapist, played by Robin Williams, that he (the therapist) is reading the wrong books.  The Daimon character goes on to say that the book People's History of the United States will really knock your socks off!  That phrase in the movie makes me think at times: What books have really knocked my socks off?

Some may look down on me reading books by and about Nixon.  After all, can we really trust Nixon to give us the true spiel of what actually happened, or to enlighten us about what the world is like?  And a couple of books that I have read make the point that Nixon's books on foreign policy did not exactly make an impact on the world of academia.

I remember a professor saying that a relative of hers was wondering if a book that she (the relative) had recently read had been worth the time.  To my surprise, the professor told us that her response to her relative was, "Well, did you like the book?"  My professor did not think that a book had to be on the list of New York Times bestsellers for a person to enjoy it and to get something out of it.

Do I enjoy reading books that are abstract, or books that truly probe the human condition?  For me, that depends on where I am at the time.  There are many times when I do not like dry, boring history books that don't really probe into the lives of real people.  At those times, I'd like to read a history book that is more like a story.  But there are also times when I am rather misanthropic and I prefer to read things that don't talk that much about people, but focus rather on ideas.

This discussion is about what I enjoy reading personally.  But reading can also be social: I have to read certain books to fit in within certain communities, or to gain knowledge that I need for professional development, or to get more readers on my blog, or to look smart.  Those are important considerations, too.


  1. Carry on reading for all those reasons, James! It's actually hard to believe there might be times when you don't have a book in your hand! I've just read Colter's Run by Stephen T. Gough. I tried it (ordered through Amazon all the way from America) because I was looking forward to learning about (what it was said to be about) Colter's psychology - what manner of man he was to return time and again to dangerous Indian territory around 1810. In fact, the psychology was simplistic, and it was largely an adventure story about violent confrontations with Indians. But, I enjoyed it for a change from other things I'm reading! davey.

  2. That sounds like an interesting book. I know you usually read really heavy books on religion, political philosophy, and economics.


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