In my latest reading of The Ends of Power, by H.R. Haldeman (with Joseph DiMona), Haldeman talks about the time when President Richard Nixon wanted to ban The Washington Post from his daughter Tricia Nixon’s wedding. Before, at Julie Nixon’s wedding, an anti-Nixon reporter went to the event and wrote a rather negative story. Richard Nixon was angry about that, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen again.
In Haldeman’s narration in The Ends of Power, Haldeman had developed a fairly decent relationship with Kay Graham, who owned The Washington Post. According to his telling, this began after he had been seated next to her at a dinner. Haldeman narrates on page 245:
“I talked to her at length, trying to show that we were reasonable men at the White House, and therefore her treatment of us at the Post should be reasonable. I think I made some headway; at least it was a start. Mrs. Graham told me to be sure to call her directly anytime I felt the Post was not being fair in its treatment of us.”
Haldeman states that he did not take advantage of this offer, until Nixon decided to ban the Post from Tricia’s wedding. Haldeman says on pages 246-247:
“I…explained [to Kay Graham] the Nixon family concern with what might happen if a certain reporter were assigned to the wedding, and asked if anything could be done to avert it. I tried to appeal to her personal side, citing the family’s natural desire that the wedding be a happy occasion. I didn’t mention my orders from the President that the Post was to be banned altogether because I hoped we could work out something that would solve the problem.”
Kay Graham responded that she couldn’t “interfere with the decision of who covers a story” (Graham’s alleged words, quoted on page 247), and that she couldn’t allow the White House to dictate the Post‘s press coverage, but that she understood. Haldeman narrates that the problem of the reporter was solved, and the Post was not banned from Tricia’s wedding.
I like this story because it is about the of building bridges between different people, being fair and acknowledging people’s humanity, and using diplomacy. Haldeman was effective because he appealed to Nixon’s humanity in his conversation with Kay Graham, and also because he did not raise an issue that could raise barriers rather than lowering them (in this case, Nixon’s desire to expel the Post from Tricia’s wedding). And it helped that he was dealing with a lady who herself could be reasonable and fair-minded. But would this relationship have developed had Haldeman not been seated next to her at that dinner, had he not been given the opportunity to humbly make his case to her, had he not permitted her to see him as a person, not as some character she knew about who worked at the White House? Would the barriers have still been there had they not gotten to meet each other and to have a discussion?