For my blog post today about Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Black says on page 47:
“Because [Nixon] was not confident of his ability to cajole or charm or at least legitimately persuade, as required, almost anyone he met, he designed his career around his strengths and weaknesses. Being, because of his shyness, an outsider, at least until he was thoroughly integrated into a group, he judged the susceptibilities of others with the observant keenness of a wary pugilist. Because he was not flamboyant or overpowering, he addressed ordinary people in a way that reminded them of themselves. And when he did not feel obliged to be devious, he had great and natural, even inborn, empathy for the disadvantaged and was generous to the unfortunate. He demonstrated this throughout his life, with no ulterior motive.”
In some of my blog posts for My Year (or More) of Nixon, I have talked about how Nixon (to use Black’s words) “designed his career around his strengths and weaknesses.” Like Nixon, I myself am shy, and I have long been somewhat of an outsider (though, as Black notes, Nixon eventually came to be a part of groups). What stood out to me in my reading of this passage was how (according to Black) Nixon could turn his shyness and less-than-flashy personality into a strength, politically-speaking. I was wondering, though, if I could turn my own shyness into a strength in similar ways.
Black says that Nixon’s shyness and outsider status enabled him to analyze people from a distance. Is that true with me? I don’t know. Often, when I am an outsider, I am resentful of the insiders for not deeming me good enough to include me in their group. Rather than looking at them with some degree of objectivity, I tend to attach to them a negative label (i.e., “snob”), which disregards the nuance of who they are as people. Moreover, if I am an outsider, that means that I don’t know the insiders particularly well, and thus I lack the understanding that is necessary to judge adequately their strengths and weaknesses. With all of this, however, I can still identify somewhat with Black’s point that Nixon’s shyness and outsider status could provide him with the distance that would help him to evaluate people. The reason is that Black’s point reminds me of something that Adam McHugh said in his excellent book, Introverts in the Church: that introverts are like the narrator of the story rather than the characters. There actually are times when I feel that way.
Black says that Nixon’s less-than-flashy personality enabled Nixon to come across to people as someone who was like them. Is that true with me? I don’t know. I rarely thought of my less-than-flashy personality as being an asset in those terms, as being something that can actually draw people to me. I saw it as a deficiency: as something that hindered me from impressing people. I think of the Kevin Spacey character’s statement in the movie American Beauty: “That’s all right, I wouldn’t remember me either!” But, come to think of it, there are people who have remarked that I have a soothing personality. One lady said to my Mom that I explained to her what I was studying, without talking down to her. Not everyone is that comfortable around me, but there are people who are.
Black says that Nixon had empathy and generosity towards the outsiders and the unfortunate. Do my shyness and outsider status make this true of me? I’d say “yes” and “no.” On the “no” side, my resentment at being an outsider can sometimes lead me not to care about other people and their problems. “They don’t care about me, so I don’t care about them,” I think to myself. On the other hand, because I know what it’s like to struggle, I do tend to sympathize with others who struggle. Both hard resentment and empathy or sympathy coexist within me.