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John Dean’s Unfamiliar Account of a Familiar Story

NixonDefenseCoverI am in the process of reading John Dean’s newest book about Richard Nixon and Watergate.  The book is entitled The Nixon Defense:  What He Knew and When He Knew It (New York:  Viking, 2014).  I am about 4/5 done, as I write today’s post.

Dean, who was chief counsel during the Nixon era, arranged for transcription of all of the audio recorded tapes, and has painstakingly listened to and interpreted them to write this book.   Some tapes were of very poor quality and Dean professes to have spent hours trying to decipher them with the most sophisticated equipment available.  The book is a well-written, although not always well-proofed (there are typos), account of the major events and players in this infamous era.  His first, and most famous book, was Blind Ambition (New York:  Simon and Schuster), written in 1976, which Dean frequently cites in this book.

I listened to some of these tapes before they were made available to general public.  Once on a trip to D.C., in the early ’90’s, I spent most of a day at the National Archives selecting sessions of interest to me.  At the time I did this, many of the tapes that are available today on the Internet were still classified.  This book reinforces the startling reality that we had an American president who stumbled and rambled in an inarticulate manner, presenting himself in front of others as confused, disorganized, and uninformed.  He adapted well to whom he was speaking, but in a manipulative and unethical manner.  What I did not know until I read this book was that he was also horribly sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic.  The tapes reveal that he was no fan of women, African-Americans, or Jews, in spite of any presidential appointments that he awarded them.

The most interesting portions in the book to me are the reflections that Dean includes from a perspective 40 years later.  He frequently explains what he was thinking then, and what he thinks now.  He provides corrections and updates to what he heard on the tapes.  This is not a book that simply includes transcriptions, but rather, that weaves in information and accounts from multiple sources that correspond with those transcriptions.  JohnDeanPicture

People criticize Jimmy Carter as president for surrounding himself with the wrong people.  They were no match for “all the president’s men.”  I always thought that Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was machiavellian and controlling.  I never believed Charles Colson back then, or when he found Jesus Christ in jail and wrote books for personal profit, or now as I read what he said in these transcriptions.* Until I read this book, I never thought that John Ehrlichman, the counsel and Assistant to for Domestic Affairs, was so stupid.  The tapes reveal how often he spoke before thinking, how limited his knowledge of civil and criminal law was, and how dismissive he was of alternative positions that were not aligned with his own.  Without doubt, the great unraveling of the Watergate cover-up as well as the Nixon presidency was the gradual interest each person had in protecting himself by twisting facts and spinning tales to fit individual concerns.  At one point, Ehrlichman, in a meeting with Haldeman and Nixon, actually provides word-for-word false testimony that he wanted Dean to recite under oath.  At another, with the same audience, he assumes a broadcaster’s voice, and provides the content of a potential news story that he thought could play out in the media.  In so many conversations, all of these men provided Nixon partial information about damaging circumstances, omitting any content that could implicate themselves.  That is even true when they spoke about each other with Nixon while one or more were not present.  Dean was brave for bolting the scene and baring himself to prosecutors, but why did it take him so long to do so?

But the president himself was the problem.  If you read this book, you may be amazed how much time Nixon devoted to Watergate-related business.  He devoted entire days and weekends to gathering facts about it, creating scenarios, providing instructions, and examining options.  How many times he asks the same questions and gets the same answers from the same people – again and again.  He forgets, or pretends to forget, facts received from the same person, sometimes in the same conversation.  I wonder how the rest of our national affairs could possibly have progressed with this much attention paid to Watergate in the Oval Office.  His subordinates purportedly were trying to distance the president from their own involvement, but they could not do that, due to his own.  Ultimately, I believe it was not John Sirica, or Sam Ervin, or Leon Jaworski, or any other characters who brought down Nixon.  I think it was the American people.  They could not tolerate, nor trust, a man in this office who once implored the country to put Watergate behind them.  Nixon’s picture on the cover of Dean’s book is extremely sinister.

I find myself constantly returning to two sections in this book.  First, I find the footnotes informative.  These are both print sources and recording references.  I occasionally will listen to a tape after reading about it in the book.  Maybe that is why I have not finished this yet.  Second, I like to go back to the list of the cast of characters.  There are many, and I always want to refresh myself on a person’s exact title.  Interestingly, there are no photographs, and I presume Dean knows they are readily available to readers elsewhere.

The two appendices are also revealing.  Appendix A is an account of the Watergate break-in.  Appendix B focuses upon the missing 18 1/2 minute gap in a recording, supposedly created by Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods.  You will be surprised about the actual account published here about what happened, especially from expert testimony.

I will post final reflections about this book when I finish.  I am interested to see how I feel about this when I can reflect about the entire book.

But, for now, this is an amazing work-in-progress.   Why did I not wait until I finish to post this?  Because, like many biographies which are careers-in-progress, so is this account for me.

NOTE:

* – I am in a definitive minority about my feelings concerning Colson.  Almost everyone I have spoken to thinks Colson genuinely found the Lord in jail, and that his books indicate a sincere revelation of a changed personality.  I wish I could also feel that way, but I just don’t.  I simply believe he wrote them for profit, knowing that a public hungry for good news from such turnabouts would buy them.  I will say, however, that I think Colson’s non-profit agencies and organizations have helped many people, and that overall, he provided a legacy with more good in the last years of his life than he did with the bad during the Watergate years.   But, I just can’t shake my opinion that he wrote these books for the wrong reason.  

 

 

Is all the business world a field or court?

A quick stroll through the business section of a bookstore or a search through the management section of an on-line retailer will quickly reveal the plethora of  titles available from sports figures.  Working from the analogy that the activities inherent around a basketball court, a football field, or a baseball diamond simulate the activities in the workplace, many current and former athletes and coaches have penned treatises teaching us how to be successful on the job.   Topics for these books include leadership, management, motivation, teamwork, self-improvement, finance, and others.

A great recent example of this is the book by John Wooden that we featured at the First Friday Book Synopsis and that you can purchase at 15MinuteBusinessBooks.com.   This book is also accompanied by videos, manuals, and training courses.  No one can question Wooden’s success as a repetitive NCAA champion head basketball coach at UCLA.   You could say the same thing about practically any of these authors.  After all, who would read a book from a loser?  I learned a long time ago in attending conventions of the National Speakers Association, that if you want to be successful in the business, follow the path of a successful speaker, not a failure. 

Here are some others:

Rick Pitino – head basketball coach at the University of Louisville:  Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life 

Fran Tarkenton – former NFL quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants:  What Losing Taught Me About Winning: The Ultimate Guide for Success in Small and Home-Based Business

Mike Ditka – former NFL head coach for the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints:  In Life, First You Kick Ass: Reflections on the 1985 Bears and Wisdom from Da Coach

The assumption behind all of these books is that the activities and best practices which yielded success for these authors in sports are relevant and applicable to what we do at work.  Therefore, a manager can use the techniques that a head coach uses, employees are players, competitors are opponents, strategies are plays, pilots or rollouts are practices, groups should become teams, and so forth.  We can use terms and phrases such as, “she struck out today,” “this looks like a home run,” “he’s our quarterback,” and “we’re in a sand trap.”  You get the point.

I think that there is some legitimacy to this, although I can tell you that in teaching my MBA courses at the University of Dallas, students are tiring of the sports analogy in business, particularly for teamwork.  You may remember the series of silly commercials from American Express a few years ago entitled “Great Moments in Business,” where employees piled up on each other in a room after a successful presentation, and high-fived each other as if they had just won a World Series after a closed sale.

If you believe that the principles that motivate human beings are the same, no matter what the context, then you would have no problem with what these books try to do.   Who would not advocate “practice” before performance, whether that is a presentation, a draft of a document or e-mail, or a pilot program prior to a national product introduction?   The same principles and behaviors that qualify a group of people as a team on the court or field should apply on the job.  Consider trust, which is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for teamwork.  Without trust, there is no team, no matter where it is.   We don’t have to talk about money –  that’s an issue in the business of sports as much as the business of business.  Some have a lot, and some don’t have enough.  Some even go out of existence, such as the recent announcement that the 20-year Arena Football League will cease operations.  Some look for outside buoyance.  The Federal Government keeps General Motors alive.  Major League Baseball did the same for the Montreal Expos before moving them to Washington, D.C.   Every sports franchise is as much of a business as a firm on Wall Street, or anywhere else.

And, managers and employees can go through all the motions of strategic planning, just like coaches and players study a playbook, diagram motions, and run through plays on the practice field or court, only to learn that when they face a competitor, it is considerably different.   Rarely is there a situation where the presence of an opponent is the not the cause of substantial modifications in strategy, and the possibility of failure. 

Remember when George Will told us that baseball players are not the “boys of summer,” but rather, “Men at Work.”  He argued that baseball managers, just as business managers, examine a set of complex variables in making decisions.  And, that players perfect their skills on the diamond in ways that go well beyond how employees do the same in the workplace.

In conclusion, advice from sports personalities about business is probably no worse than the lessons we can read about based upon Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ, Machiavelli, or General Robert E. Lee.   Like many of these sports personalities, they didn’t run or work for any of today’s companies, but authors have used their best practices to show us how to work better in our jobs. 

Is all the business world a field or a court?  Perhaps no worse than a stage.  No matter how we do it, we all have to perform.  The question is simply what resources we want to use to guide us to success. 

Let’s talk about it.  What do you think?