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