Hearts and minds. So very different in each and every person. So much going on, some open, some hidden. No one can ever win the ones of all observers. But people do reveal much–reveal a lot–with how they engage. This past week brought two different examples of engagement, one from within Fedland and one from the political world. The first one I admire. The second? It provides insights into much of what I have discussed here at my blog over the last 14 months.
Thursday evening. The Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, flew out to California for an event on Friday to mark the centennial of the birth of former first lady Pat Nixon. One of many activities in a busy week that included Freedom of Information Act Sunshine Week activities, the publication of two blog posts, and an important “all hands” meeting (the second in an ongoing series) with officials and staff of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). So much going on at the National Archives right now, that just barely scratches the surface.
Agency heads make many public appearances and travel frequently. My job doesn’t require travel, I stay close to home. Thursday after work I took a pleasant evening walk and read a post by David McMillen, an official at the National Archives. As do the best posts at the agency’s blogs, it really started me thinking. Knowing that the moderator wouldn’t see my comment until the morrow, I composed a response in my head but waited until Friday morning to write and submit it.
In addition to submitting a comment, I wrote an essay for my own blog about “An open heart.” And I smiled to myself to see that David responded at his blog to a comment which appears to have come from a NARA employee (I don’t know him). Carl mentioned in an off-hand fashion that his great uncle, Sen. John Moss, was responsible for the passage of the Freedom of the Information Act.
I like the humble vibe at the conclusion of his short comment, he doesn’t wrap himself in glory or make it more than it is. He just says, “that’s about it for my family legacy.”
David Ferriero posted a reply Thursday morning, the beginning of a day that would end with a long flight to the West Coast. David observed,”Quite a legacy!” Indeed. On Friday, McMillen added a useful link under Ferriero’s post with information about the relative of whom Carl is so proud. It provides good background information on the legacy.
Well played by all three, with economy of words yet communication with impact.
My own comment under McMillen’s essay at NARAtions is long, reflecting my thirst for stimulating engagement on topics to which I’m drawn in the desert through which I walk most of the day in Fedland. A weakness of mine, I know. I’m so thirsty in Fedland that I stop gratefully and drink at great length at any oasis I see along the way! I’m sustained by many of the good blog posts I see at various forums on NARA’s site. Later on Friday I gave a mental thumbs up to a post National Declassification Center director Sheryl Shenberger put up at the NDC blog. (More to come in future posts on that one.)
The event that David flew out to California to attend included a ceremony opening a new exhibit at the NARA Nixon Presidential Library. A luncheon at which former Nixon aide Ben Stein spoke followed immediately after the ceremony.
Stein posted his remarks Friday morning at the site for The American Spectator. I read them in my office as I was working and listening to a beautiful mezzo soprano sing Handel arias on a CD I bought last summer. Stein’s words jolted the peaceful scene. But in that jolt came a moment of understanding of why things have played out as I have described for over a year in various posts at my blog.
If you read nothing else to which I link, read Stein’s speech. He tells us so very much through his rhetoric and his interpretations. Through his choice to mark a woman worth honoring — Patricia Ryan Nixon — the way he chose to do. And in the fact that he crafted those remarks, yes, those remarks, for presentation on the day an agency head opened an exhibit at a federal archival facility. And surely knowing David was scheduled to attend the luncheon at which Stein was to speak.
Here’s a preview. This is what Stein said of Watergate. Watergate, the subject of a federal exhibit at that same Library.
“The mockers and the haters had their day. Over trivia, over nothing, over something small, the greatest peacemaker ever to occupy the White House was made to leave.
A very smart friend once said that there are certain kids on the beach who can build sand castles — and there are other kids who can knock them down. That was Watergate.
Mr. and Mrs. Nixon could build castles of peace and love. The beautiful people could knock them down — and they did as much as they could. But the structure of peace Mr. and Mrs. Nixon made has lasted until now.”
The reference to the beautiful people has an antecedent earlier in the speech. Stein stated.
“All the while, the beautiful people, the pretty people in New York and Hollywood and Washington, were calling Mrs. Nixon names and making fun of her for being square and a loyal wife. In their world, “working” is a joke and so is loyalty to your husband. Not in Mrs. Nixon’s world.”
Much of the speech was framed as juxtaposition. It’s a more binary view than the one I hold. I know the time period, I lived through it. Stein described a time when I was going to college and working, part-time as an undergrad, then later full-time, while in graduate school. In Washington. A time when I voted for Richard Nixon. At an age where despite being oh-so-nerd-girl, a dorky Introvert, some who knew me then even called me pretty–at least when I made the effort to turn out properly! The two photos show me at Christmas 1973, the last full year Nixon was in office. Black, not blue, nail polish then!
I appreciated Nixon’s seeming strength in the face of adversity as I was finishing up my undergraduate studies and taking my first full-time job in civil service. And applauded the way his daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, spoke up on his behalf. I later came to speak up on behalf of “my beloved NARA” strongly myself, come to think of it. There are many different types of loyalty.
I go “hmm” now when I see the reference to private conversations on his tapes in my May 23, 1974 letter to Nixon at the White House. (Letter Gothic type font.)
Even at a young age, I was open to change, to re-thinking issues and adjusting to new information. I later would accept while working from 1976 to 1990 for the National Archives the federal government’s mandate to release the disclosable portions of those conversations. I would listen to them as a public servant for ten years to do disclosure review. My colleagaues and I ended up taking a beating for our efforts to fulfill the federal mandate. I learned so much from that about all the principals in “the Nixon wars.” Those lessons continue to this day.
Why did I emerge from those beatings the way I have? Perhaps there are some clues in my youth. I value individualism, nuance, fine distinctions and above all, true fairness. Including for those different from me. I’ve always had grey in my palette, not just black and white. Even while Nixon was in office, I understood that while some in Washington, New York, and Hollywood supported Nixon and others did not, I should distinguish among people in all those groups. And that acting, being an entertainer, is “work” just as were the jobs that Pat Nixon and I held at a young age. (Both of us helped support ourselves while getting an education, Pat Ryan at times as I did as an undergrad, as a typist.)
I also knew even while in school that being a professor is work. Not everyone sees that as I do. Indeed, it is something which Timothy Burke recently said academics sometimes are put down for, perhaps because their work appears to be pleasurable. I didn’t always agree with all my professors and fellow students. But I cherished their freedom and mine to disagree amongst ourselves, to speak out, to form different conclusions about domestic and foreign policy, the powers of elected officials and how they use them, and the direction in which the United States should move. Democracy! It’s what my parents fled war torn Europe to live under here in the United States.
Readers, take note! I campaigned for Nixon in 1968, voted for him in 1972. I know the rich documentary record at the Nixon Presidential Library. There is a lot there about human beings, their hearts, their minds. I would have written a very different speech than did Stein. I would have left out my interpretations, let the people speak for themselves. My NARA training, I suppose. And my embrace of empiricism.
I cannot be sure to whom Ben Stein was speaking yesterday at the federal library. But this I know. There is much to admire in the way Pat Nixon lived her life. Ben Stein’s words did not reach my heart. But they taught me so very, very much in ways he may not have intended. Many sobering lessons for the larger archival community, about the past and present. And red flags perhaps for the future, as well.