Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Ends of Power 3

On pages 106-107 of The Ends of Power, H.R. Haldeman (with Joseph DiMona) talks about President Richard Nixon’s social awkwardness, contrasting Nixon with President Lyndon Johnson:

“The awkwardness was sometimes also a problem for the President in the conduct of his official duties.  Contrast, for example, his relations with Congress with those of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.  LBJ was rough-tongued, but at the same time he could charm or bluster you into anything.  He was an absolute master at Congressional persuasion.  Nixon was not at his best at this vital art.  Johnson could envelop a Congressman in charm, make him come out doing what Johnson wanted and at the same time lay in a very tough threat of what would happen if the Congressman didn’t do it.  Nixon tried the same approach, but the charm wasn’t there—-and the threat would be left hanging bald, bare, and glaring.”

If one is socially awkward (like yours truly), is it a good idea for that person to imitate someone who is more socially adept?  I’ve heard people answer “yes” to that.  And, sometimes, it can work.  One time, a friend and I were walking to class in the bitter cold, and my friend remarked, “Still winter.”  Later that day, I saw another classmate, and I was walking with him unsure of what to say, so I adopted what my friend had said earlier that day: “Still winter.”  The classmate laughed and said, “Yeah.”

But there are times when trying to imitate someone else may not flow smoothly.  It’s like when I was taking gym as a youngster: the gym teacher or a student would demonstrate an athletic skill to us, and it would look so easy.  Then I would try it, and I’d botch it up!  Well, trying to imitate people’s social mannerisms can have that result, as we see in Haldeman’s description of Nixon’s attempts to imitate Lyndon Johnson.  What may be easy for somebody else may be more difficult for me.

And yet, I should be willing to learn from others.  If my social repertoire is limited, then watching and learning from what others say and do may allow me to give it some content—-as long as I remember what is appropriate to a given context (what I observe in one context may not be appropriate in another context).

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