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May 27, 2008

What I Learned From Richard Nixon

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Even though I only voted for him once ...

Er, check that. I actually voted against McGovern that year.

Anyway, I can cite one positive (to me) influence from President Nixon. While he was in office I read an article about him someplace that mentioned that he was quite curious about how things worked. I can't remember whether those things were natural, mechanical or organizational. But that doesn't really matter.

You see, at that time I wasn't especially curious about what made things tick. The article made me take stock of myself and realize that my happy ignorance was a deficiency. As a result, I began to pay more attention to details.

I'm not obsessive about it, but I still take a quick peek "under the hood" now and then when I encounter something new. Otherwise, I've acquired enough background that I have an okay mental yardstick to help evaluate stuff I encounter in daily life. This is particularly the case for matters bureaucratic.

I suppose most folks attain the same end simply by keeping their eyes open and living long enough. Me, I still have to fight the burden of having a Ph.D. and those years of having to honor Theory rather than experience.



posted by Donald at May 27, 2008


You'd be surprised at how little people seem to care about How Things Work.

Around 2001, I had a conversation with a pair of young (23 or 24) associate editors in my office. They were trying to download a streaming file of a song or somesuch, and I showed them how to find the URL of the link within the HTML of a webpage (the site would block the visual of the link in the status bar). They were amazed that I knew how to do this, since I was "just an editor" and not a web-designer.

I asked, "Did you guys have web access in college?"

They did. In fact, all the dorms were wired. They were online many hours a day back in school, and now spent chunks of their workday following the adventures of Radiohead and U2.

I asked, "Did you ever look at the HTML code on a webpage?"

Not once. Never even occurred to 'em. Whereas that was pretty much the FIRST thing I did, once I realized what a webpage is.

I hoped this lack of curiosity was "just them" and not some symptom of "millennials" or whatever the heck they're supposed to be called.

Posted by: Gil Roth on May 27, 2008 4:25 PM

I'm often aware that I'm not paying enough attention to my real surroundings -- that I'm off in my own thoughts somewhere instead of attending to the here and now. But even I'd have to go a long way to match one ex-friend of mine. He spent much of the '80s -- the go-go, "Wall Street" years -- working for a major investment house. He was just doing grunt work, and was there only to pay the bills while he tried to get started as a writer. But even so, he managed to pick up precisely nothing from his stay at the epicenter of that decade's action. How'd it work? What were the people like? Nada. It's like it never occurred to him to pay attention to where he was, let alone to the people he was spending 8 hours a day with. I wanted to award him an Oscar for Obliviousness.

As for politics ... The Wife likes to say that with Nixon, at least we were never bored.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 28, 2008 12:14 AM


Makes me wonder how good of a writer he was if he let all that detail go right by him. Seems to me one of the best skills a writer can have besides the willingness to schedule time to write and rewrite is an eye for detail and situations. I keep a notepad with me at all times to steal scraps of conversations and situations floating around me.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on May 28, 2008 3:30 AM

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