Monday, June 5, 2017

(11) When a leader wants it, a leader gets it - even if the leader doesn't want it

It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and it is most certainly true that a powerful person can get people to do his or her bidding. Even when the powerful person has more pressing duties, there are people who will cater to every inconsequential whim of the powerful person.

And when you talk about people with power, the one person who comes to mind is the President of the United States. There are people who are devoted to pleasing the President and always staying on the President's good side. And nowhere do we see this in a little episode with the President, Richard Nixon.

(What, you thought I was talking about someone else?)

By White House photo - Nixon Presidential Library [1], Public Domain, Link

Charles Colson was a devoted soldier for President Nixon, and while much of his devotion eventually led him to plead guilty to criminal acts and serve prison time, there were things that Colson did for Nixon that weren't illegal, but questionable in other ways. As we know from the tapes and from his associates, President Nixon would sometimes blow off steam and say things, and his associates knew that he really didn't mean what he said.

Or did he?

In his book Born Again, Colson recounts an incident in which the President got itchy one night. One tragedy of the post-Kennedy assassination climate is that Presidents are locked up behind multiple layers of security, resulting in a situation in which a President can't live like a normal person. And, understandably, they sometimes want to break out of the prison.

(The quotes below are from a New York Times 1976 review of Colson's book.)

The book has its lighter moments. There is a charming chapter called “The President's Night Out,” in which Our Man Colson scrambles to help the President, who looks forward to an evening of musical surcease at the Kennedy Center, with conductor Eugene Ormandy.

It turned out that Ormandy himself was not present - due to the immense power that White House assistants wielded, Colson learned that Ormandy was nowhere near Washington at the time - but President Nixon wanted to go out anyway. Colson, who had a (somewhat undeserved) reputation for doing ANYTHING to get the job done, managed to get Nixon to the Kennedy Center.

The next morning, Colson was contacted by another Nixon assistant, H.R. Haldeman.

In a horrifying epilogue, H. R. Haldeman chastises Colson the next day for having helped the President to escape. “Just tell him‐ he can't go, that's all,” said Haldeman. “He rattles his cage all the time. You can't let him out.”

This brings to mind the various schools of thought on how assistants can best serve a President - or a corporate CEO. On one extreme, the assistants can satisfy the leader's every whim, which could potentially get the organization into trouble if the whims are illegal or bad business practice. On the other extreme, the assistants can do what is best, regardless of what the leader wants; however, this potentially negates the wishes of the voters, or of the shareholders, who expected the leader to do what the leader said he/she would do.

I don't know if I'd agree that Haldeman's chastisement was "horrifying," but it does cast another light on all the President's men. Commonly criticized for doing the President's bidding, in this case Haldeman is accused of telling someone to disobey a direct order of the President.

Who was right - Colson, or Haldeman? With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Colson's exercise did no lasting harm. But if the President had been killed - or, more likely, if someone on the Kennedy Center stage had taken the opportunity to lecture the President on the Vietnam War - Haldeman would have been seen as the wisest man around.

(And yes, if you followed my second link, I know that Nixon was a Quaker, not a Lutheran. Oh well.)

P.S. If you're wondering why this post title begins with the number 11, have a peek at the Empoprises Twitter account and take a look at the other ten tweets that appeared beginning at 4:00 am Pacific time. (Well, unless Tweetdeck broke and the tweets didn't appear as scheduled.)
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