Saturday, August 25, 2012

Two Crises

Noting that the Romney campaign has not yet disseminated a "crisis narrative" as part of the process of humanizing its somewhat mysterious candidate, Sheryl Gay Stolberg obliges with an article describing his reaction to an auto accident in France in 1968, when he was serving as an LDS missionary, and Ann Romney's MS diagnosis 14 yeas ago. Age 21 at the time of the accident, in which a friend was killed, Romney was already cultivating cool:

“Mitt was deeply enmeshed in thinking about leadership,” said Douglas D. Anderson, a friend who is dean of the business school at Utah State University. “He developed a very early set of core beliefs and values that had to do with being cool under pressure, that had to do with looking for opportunities where others saw threats, that had to do with being analytical and somewhat detached in order to look at reality the way it is, rather than how it is being perceived by people who are driven by the hysteria of the moment.

“And out of that,” Dr. Anderson went on, “came a pattern of living that was reinforced by events like that critical accident in France.”

How Nixonian. Otherwise uninterested in introspection, 37 eagerly plumbed his crisis narrative and even wrote a book about it, Six Crises. He was acutely aware of his reactions to political and even mortal emergencies, bragging that he stayed calm and rational when others panicked. He applied the same discipline to a president's loneliest work -- making life-and-death decisions when his smartest advisers wildly disagreed with one another. Long before George W. Bush called himself "the decider," Nixon talked about "the April 30 decision" and "the May 8 decision," when he announced that he was sending troops into Cambodia in 1970 and B-52s to attack Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972.

Once he'd given himself enough time to decide, undecide, and redecide, as his aide and friend Ray Price called it, he rarely second-guessed himself. Soon after I'd joined Nixon's former president's staff, one morning in 1981 he wandered down the hall from his office in 26 Federal Plaza in New York, without a word handed me a copy of his memoirs with one of his business cards marking the May 8 section, and disappeared again. Media reports suggest that while making decisions about how to battle al-Qaeda and whether to send a team to find and kill Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama has brought the same steely qualities to bear.

Nixon didn't always keep his passions under control. He often felt far more deeply than he let on, and he came to regret some of the decisions he made when he was feeling angry or resentful. It would have been better if he'd occasionally delved deeper, according to the theory that the feelings we fully own are less apt to control us. But in addition to his severe introversion and shyness, Nixon had that World War II-Great Depression generation reticence going on.

Stolberg describes Romney as rarely bringing up personal matters and as having a charitable if not an empathetic temperament. "Mitt Romney will never disgrace the office," Anderson told her. "He will set an example of moral rectitude. But don't expect him to sit down and feel your pain." People do want a president who cares, especially in a country where everyone isn't white, male, straight, and rich. But a leader's inner process, including the ability to be unemotional and occasionally ruthless, is even more important.

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