Tuesday, April 21, 2009


April 23, 2009

Dale Carnegie would be proud.
Lao Tzu too.
Barack Obama must have gone down to the Summit of the Americas meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders last week with a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People in his pocket.
Before he left, he rescinded the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on sending dollars to their relatives there, and immediately got this response from that old revolutionary, president Raul Castro: "We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."
When he got to the meeting in Trinidad, he gave Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela and the surly spitter of anti-American vitriol, a broad smile and a warm handshake — and Chavez smiled back.
Right out of How to Win Friends, that primordial self-help text that has been showing people how to shake the fruit from other people's trees since 1936. It's just common sense, codified: If you treat people with respect, they're much more likely to do what you'd like them to do.
And heads of state are people too.
Anyone who has read a self-improvement book, from Carnegie to Covey — and who hasn't? — or taken a human-relations course, or been in family counseling, has learned the "habits of highly effective people." Of course, it's one thing to know it and a whole other thing to do it.
Obama seems to be doing it.
How to make people like you? Carnegie's approach is simple: Be genuinely interested in them; smile; be a good listener; talk in terms of their interests.
How to win people to your way of thinking? Show respect for their opinions; if you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically; let them feel the idea is theirs; see things from their point of view; let them save face.
Obama is deftly employing those tactics with Cuba, and they may win him the success that almost 50 years of belligerence from nine other presidents has failed to achieve.
Previous administrations have demanded that Cuba initiate democratic reforms before the U.S. would consider lifting its trade embargo and re-establishing diplomatic relations. But Obama's principle that negotiations, even failed ones, are always worthwhile is allowing Castro himself to bring up the very issues that have irked America from the start, dealing with them, as he said, "as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people's right to self-determination."
In Carnegie's formula: Let them feel the idea is theirs; let them save face.
In an even more unexpected turnabout, Castro went on: "We could be wrong. We admit it. We're human beings."
I have no doubt that this admission arose as a direct result of Obama's own frankness about U.S. policy errors — especially and most recently the disclosure of the tactics of torture inflicted on its own political prisoners: the equality of mutual fault.
Carnegie again: If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
Of course, there are other factors that may lead to the relaxing of tensions — the eclipse of both the doctrinaire Fidel and the equally doctrinaire first generation of Cuban refugees, as well as the utterly un-doctrinaire American businesses chomping at the bit to hit the Cuban marketplace — but it's the approach from the top that's facilitating it.
What a contrast from the G. W. Bush approach, where a smile became a smirk, where other countries were treated not as equals but as inferiors, where America was never wrong, no matter how wrong it was.
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote The Way of Taoover two millennia ago, characterized leadership this way: "When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. The Master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: We did it all by ourselves!'"
Oh, for a Havana cigar!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


April 9, 2009

The best part of the Obamas' whirlwind tour of Europe, I thought, was their audience with the Queen of England, and especially the media-engorging flap over whether Michelle broke protocol by touching Her Highness, or whether she was properly responding to a touch initiated by the Queen.
Amidst worldwide economic calamity, the dilemma's dreadful horns in Afghanistan, the oversized reaction to North Korea's undersized rocket launch, and myriad other perplexities, observing the arcane manners of the royal court was curiously refreshing. It was a living relic of an age long gone, when sovereigns were thought to possess not only divine right but divine power, including the power to strike you dead if you got too close.
These days, power comes from other sources, and in democracies at least, untouchability is a political quality, not a physical attribute. And that other head of state present at the Queen's reception, the man Michelle has no qualms about touching, has definitely got it so far.
After last September's presidential debate at the University of Mississippi, Howard Fineman of Newsweek noted that prominently displayed in Barack Obama's Senate office was a photo of Muhammad Ali standing victorious over the battered frame of vanquished heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
"Senator," Fineman wrote,"you are no Ali. For whatever reason (I think there are several, personal and strategic), you either don't know how to or can't be a closer. You can't finish with the kind of flurry that drops your foe to the canvas."
Fineman was disappointed at Obama's performance in the debate. The candidate "missed several chances to counterattack, especially on the economy. Obama's answers were strewn with annoying ‘ums' and ‘ahs' as he played for time to calibrate the least-damaging response."
"His operative metaphor," Fineman concluded, "isn't boxing but bodysurfing. He is the product of Hawaii, where they learn to wait for and ride the wave."
Maybe, but not quite. Fineman must have forgotten about the tactic Ali laughingly named "rope-a-dope": You get yourself up against the ropes but use them for support, you absorb the body- blows while protecting your head, you let your opponent wear himself out, and after a few rounds of this, you come in for the kill.
Obama has been roping dopes since the early days of his campaign. One by one, Liston-like, the veterans of the political ring hit his lack of experience, his na├»ve idealism, his supposed liaisons with radical preachers and domestic terrorists. He took those punches, kept his head, conserved his strength — and one by one, they fell.
They're falling still, even harder. In his dealings with Congress, Obama floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. He's so politically adroit that not a glove can graze him. The Republicans are beside themselves with frustrated aggression, flailing furiously, and like every old boxer, befuddled at why the tactics that served them so well in the past don't work anymore against this young upstart.
While they jabber rather than jab, with their worn-out harangues on deficit spending and free markets, the president invites them in for dialogue, feigns sadness at their unresponsiveness, then pushes his programs right past them.
It may be that Obama learned these tactics not from the playbook of Ali but of Alinsky. A consistently effective strategy of community organizers has long been to wear down city officials with rallies and meetings and media until, at the point of exasperation, they give up and give in to their demands.
Whatever the source, Obama's approach is working like a charm. And charm is part of it too, as his trip to Europe has demonstrated. Defusing opposition, bringing skeptical rivals to the table, rallying the support of the masses, speaking careful words of rapprochement tempered with steely realism — all this bodes well for the bold initiatives on aid to developing nations and nuclear disarmament that he is proposing.
Before the election, just about everybody had creeping doubts that this man could be as effective in office as he was in the campaign; he couldn't be a closer. No more.
Another bit of royal protocol revealed last week was that you must never turn your back to the Queen. To exit from her presence, you walk backwards.
It was the same for Ali, though that wasn't a matter of protocol.
Ditto that for Obama right now.