My blog post today about Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full will focus on the use of humor to defuse tensions. Here are two incidents that Black discusses, followed by my reflections:
Within the Nixon Administration, there were differences of opinion
between Arthur Burns, a conservative, who would later go on to become
chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a liberal,
who would later go on to serve as a United States Senator. Both served
under President Richard Nixon as advisers on domestic policy. On page
579, Black mentions an example of Moynihan one time managing to defuse
tension between himself and Burns with humor:
"The Urban Affairs
Council met for the first time on January 23. Nixon signed the
executive order setting it up and introduced Moynihan. Burns, who had
thought he would be running domestic policy, asked Moynihan if he would
produce an urban policy outline. Moynihan, with the splendid Irish
charm that never deserted him, replied that he would be glad to do so,
provided that 'no one take it seriously.' Moynihan's mirthful erudition
took the edge off possible abrasions with Burns, and his council got
down to serious policy work."
2. On page 587, Black tells the
story of a time when President Richard Nixon was invited to the British
prime minister Harold Wilson's place of residence for a private dinner.
The problem was that the recently-appointed British ambassador to the
United States, John Freeman, would be there, and Freeman as editor of
the socialist New Statesman had written "extremely acidulous
comments about" Nixon (Black's words). Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman
attempted to get Freeman disinvited from the dinner, but David K.E.
Bruce, an American diplomat, said that "it was not Haldeman's place to
say whom the British prime minister could have to dinner in his own
house" (Black's words).
The outcome of all this was that both
Nixon and Freeman came to the dinner, and Nixon said: "They say there's a
new Nixon...and a new Freeman. Let me set aside all possibility of
embarrassment because our roles have changed. He's the new diplomat and
I'm the new statesman." Black says this broke the tension, and Wilson
wrote on his menu a message to Nixon: "That was one of the kindest and
most generous acts I have known in a quarter-century of politics".
Wilson also called Nixon a "born gentleman."
3. How adept am I at
using humor to defuse tensions? Not very. I'm not that good on my
feet. There are things that I say, however, that strike people as
funny, even though I don't intend them to be funny. That breaks the
tension. But I don't particularly appreciate being laughed at.
about when people use humor on me in an attempt to defuse tension? To
be honest, I don't particularly appreciate that, at least not all of the
time. Maybe it is better than being yelled at or having an argument
with someone. But I sometimes feel when someone uses humor on me to
defuse tension that I am not being listened to, or that my concerns are
being trivialized, or that I am being made fun of. Maybe I'm even
resentful that somebody else, and not me, is being the bigger person.
Anyway, that's my whining for the day.