June 15, 2004

OF FORESTS AND TREES (via Jeff Guinn):

sp>What Ronald Reagan Understood: He faced down the totalitarians and the appeasers. (David Gelernter, 06/21/2004, Weekly Standard)

Reagan...was an optimist who dealt in reality and looked at the world head on. He was a modern Conservative in the great tradition of Benjamin Disraeli, the "Tory Democrat." Conservatives and liberals (in this worldview) are equally progressive, equally interested in the future. They are different insofar as liberals are detached from the past and look to the international community for advice and approval. Conservatives are detached from the international community and look to the past for advice and approval: to their ancestors, their national history, their religious traditions, their cultural patrimony. "What inspired all the men of the armies that met here?" Reagan asked at Pointe du Hoc. "It was faith, and belief; it was loyalty and love."

Reagan was a realist, but a "mystic nationalist" also. He did in fact call himself a "mystic," according to Peter Schweizer; and he was certainly a patriot and a nationalist. But mystic nationalism is more than the sum of parts. It is a religion--but one that translucently overlays (without obscuring or superceding) Judaism or Christianity.

Mystic nationalism is a tradition nobly represented in the 20th century by such statesmen as Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion. Reagan would have recognized himself in a passage by the poet Rupert Brooke, killed at age 28 in the First World War. "He was immensely surprised," Brooke wrote in 1914 about an unnamed friend, "to perceive that the actual earth of England held for him...a quality which, if he'd ever been sentimental enough to use the word, he'd have called 'holiness.' His astonishment grew as the full flood of 'England' swept him on from thought to thought. He felt the triumphant helplessness of a lover."

"There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning," Reagan said in his farewell speech, referring to the White House. "The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that's the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river."

Abraham Lincoln spoke for mystic nationalism. "The mystic chords of memory," Lincoln wrote, "stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." That was Reagan's faith also.

One of the most persistent anti-Reagan accusations is that he failed in detail; he operated at the "executive summary" level. But in Reagan this was a strength. No personality can encompass everything. Most detail specialists approach life bottom-up and never do grasp the big picture. A rabbinic anecdote explains why Moses was a great leader: Moses proclaimed (Exodus 15:1) "I will sing to the Lord for He is greatly exalted," and the people responded, referring to the Egyptian army's convenient disappearance: "Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea." The people saw only details: Egypt's army had lost a battle. Moses saw the big picture--the greatness of God. Reagan was no Moses, but he too was a big picture man; and he did usher a significant portion of mankind from bondage into freedom.

Providence, or simple serendipity, touched Ronald Reagan one last time as PBS showed its American Experience film on Jimmy Carter over the last two Monday nights. Not only did it demonstrate in reasonably forthright fashion just how grotesquely incompetent Mr. Carter was at the task of leadership, but it made some considerable note of his attention to detail and his need to be fully informed on every issue before making a decision (or before putting off a decision, as the case may have been). The two--an orientation towards detail and an inability to lead--seem inextricably bound. It's impossible to imagine a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush retreating to Camp David for a week of what even his former aides contemptuously referred to as "public psychoanalysis" in order to figure out what they believe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2004 7:24 AM

Hey, I hear Jimmy worked wonders with the White House tennis court schedule! That was leadership!

Posted by: kevin whited at June 15, 2004 8:57 AM

The WSJ had an article a while back about lessons learned for CEO's. If I recall correctly, number one was "the vision thing." Leaders should think about and plan for the future. Make decisions, monitor and leave basic execution to quality staff.

Posted by: Rick T. at June 15, 2004 9:46 AM

I remember Carter's week at Camp David. We all thought he was playing hooky.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 15, 2004 10:37 AM

I watched "Miracle" for the first time last night. It, too, was well timed.

Posted by: Timothy at June 15, 2004 1:12 PM

I recall reading about Carter's meetings on the Iran hostage issue. And about he agonized over whether some of the hostage-takers might be "conscripts" who we shouldn't hurt when/if our Army attacked them.

Posted by: fred at June 15, 2004 1:16 PM

Hmm, looking at that PBS link, one thing jumped out at me: "Middle East Peace: How did Carter come closer than anyone before or since?"

This sums up the fallacy of the current Left/Liberals in a nutshell-------what matters most is not actually achieving a goal, but how you are making motion.

And, of course, the implicit idea that there are no other players in the issue with their own interests and intentions, but that the chief player is the USA, and the rest of the world responds only to what the USA does & says.

Posted by: fred at June 15, 2004 1:22 PM

>The two--an orientation towards detail and an
>inability to lead--seem inextricably bound.

The reason is simple:
Information Overload.
Analysis Paralysis.

I have always had a tendency to get bogged down in detail; not only could I not see the forest for the trees, I couldn't even see the trees because I was seeing every vein on every leaf on every branch of every tree. All the superdetailed information floods in at once, without any filtering, and you become overwhelmed.

And when you become overwhelmed, you either fold up completely or try to micromanage everything (which overwhelms you still further). Then "displacement behavior" comes in, where when you're overwhelmed and everything is out of control, you develop tunnel vision, focus in on ONE thing you CAN control, and use all your time and energy to micromanage it to death.

I think David Gelertner described it (or something very similar) as "we run around in circles screaming but accomplish nothing."

Posted by: Ken at June 15, 2004 4:17 PM

If you're going to be a mystic nationalist, it helps to have the big battalions on your side.

Nasser is one example of what happens when you don't, but there are hundreds of others.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 15, 2004 7:51 PM


That's twice in the last couple days when you said what I was going to.

I happen to have a woodpeckers view of a forest.

I doubt Presidents Reagan or Bush ever succumb to analysis paralysis.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 15, 2004 10:43 PM

Jeff: You're that hungry?

Harry: Or to have a nation about which to get mystic.

Posted by: Chris at June 16, 2004 9:11 AM

Ken, you should read the short story "Funes the Memorious" by Jorge Luis Borges. It is about a character who cannot let go of any detail, and remembers everything. You reminded me of that short story.

I am quite the opposite. I can't concentrate on details very long. I have to be able to grok a pattern or conceptual model/abstraction of something I am studying. If I can't do that within a period of time, I'll give up, because I won't be able to remember the details. My wife can redo a room, and it may be a month before I notice it (slight exaggeration).

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 16, 2004 3:16 PM

>Ken, you should read the short story "Funes the
>Memorious" by Jorge Luis Borges....

Actually, when I was at CalPoly in the late Seventies, I knew someone over D&D who was worse. As far as he could tell, he had total recall eidetic memory -- he literally could not forget any memory.

Despite that, he functioned pretty well; he's now married (hyperactive wife), two teenage kids (the first of whom took after her mother) and two change-of-life toddlers, and (still) very mellow. He told me once it took him over ten years to learn how to deal with that total recall eidetic memory and make it an asset instead of a curse. He apparently succeeded, but then he was one of the most easygoing and mellow guys I've ever come across.

Posted by: Ken at June 18, 2004 7:44 PM