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:
1. 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.
How 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.