Monday, July 29, 2019

Developing an Educated Workforce with Technical Colleges

I've been invited to speak at an upcoming conference I'm attending on how my association is successfully working to develop a better educated workforce for the industry we represent. I won't be speaking alone, since this is not a challenge that confronts only my industry. I'll be part of small panel of others, each of whom is trying to tackle the problem facing their industry in their own way.

My association, through its associated and strategically-aligned, tax-exempt charitable foundation, is addressing our industry's challenge on two fronts -- only one of which I think I will have time to talk about at the conference. That front has us partnering with 2-year technical colleges to create and support degree and certificate programs that teach the competencies our industry has already identified as representing the workforce skills they seek and have trouble finding.

But it's not just the technical colleges that get our attention. In order to make sure there are enough students in the programs that they offer, we also have to work with high schools and even middle schools in the same communities to make sure there is a "pipeline" of students interested in pursuing this line of education and getting jobs in this industry.

We actually use the word "pathway" when talking about these programs. We seek to create a pathway into our industry. We are building a series of programs that first introduce our industry's technology (i.e., fluid power) in middle schools, then provide fluid power educational experiences in high schools, then fluid power degrees and certificates in tech schools, and finally connections to jobs in the fluid power industry.

To help keep all these programs connected -- especially in the minds of the companies that support and want to engage with them -- we have recently organized them under a single brand, something we're calling the Fast Track to Fluid Power. “Fast Track,” we tell potential supporters and participants, is a workforce development pathway that connects local technical colleges with industry partners and high school teachers. The network creates awareness and interest in fluid power and leads students along a path that leads to careers in our industry.

There are four connected program pieces in this pathway:

1. The Fluid Power Action Challenge engages thousands of middle school students in learning about and having fun with fluid power. It raises awareness among students, educators, and parents. Industry partners serve as coaches and judges.

2. Fast Track High Schools are each equipped with fluid power lab equipment and curriculum. They teach real-world fluid power and generate interest in fluid power careers. Industry partners visit the schools frequently and provide mentorship and career encouragement.

3. Fluid Power Scholarships are offered to graduating high school students in order to pursue fluid power degrees or certificates at designated technical colleges. Industry partners serve on the scholarship review committee that makes funding decisions.

4. Fast Track Technical Colleges are schools with a 2-year degree program validated to teach core fluid power competencies. Industry partners provide on-going curriculum guidance and student internship opportunities.

Notice how we have defined a role for industry partners in each one of these connected programs. This, we have discovered, is absolutely essential to their success. The association can do a lot to provide support to the schools and to resource the programs, but only the companies in the industry itself can connect with the students and bring them into the positions that they are trying to fill. Their participation is a make-or-break proposition for our entire strategy.

These are some of the details and observations that I hope to share at the upcoming conference.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 15 (DRAFT)

Behaviors. That’s what Gerald meant by doing this thing right. He called the stuff we were putting up on the flipchart little more than descriptive nonsense—things that sounded good to the brainless automatons that sat in most corporate conference rooms, but didn’t really mean anything, that had no substance to them. He even branded my idea that way—was bold enough, in fact, to use it as an example for the rest of the group.

Thinks creatively, he said. What exactly does that mean? How can you tell if someone is thinking creatively? Does their forehead glow a certain color? And if we’re going to use that as a test for hiring new employees, how can we test their ability to think creatively in an interview setting? Ask them to answer the questions through interpretative dance? Gerald said we need to dump all this junk and start focusing on observable behaviors. After all, we didn’t want people who could describe themselves as creative thinkers. We wanted people who could be observed applying creative solutions in difficult situations.

Despite his patronizing tone, he actually made a lot of sense. We spent a few more minutes brainstorming in this new direction—Michael back in his glory and stationed like a tactical wing commander beside his flipchart, but only about half of our ideas met Gerald’s rigid criteria. Someone would say “stays organized” and Gerald would counter with “keeps an orderly workspace.” Another would say “pursues professional development” and Gerald would correct it with “belongs to a professional society.” Michael bristled every time he did this, but everyone could see that Gerald was right, and that he was making our list better by pushing things in a direction they needed to go.

Whether it was Gerald’s condescending attitude and our own inability to swim in the depths he sought, our brainstorming died a fairly quick and natural death. Looking at the list we had on the flipchart—a mishmash of descriptions and behaviors with little rhyme or reason to them—I found myself unsatisfied with the output. I suggested that we all keep thinking about it, focusing on things that are directly observable and sending the ideas back to me over the next week via email. While the iron was hot I asked everyone to pull out their calendars and we set a time for a follow-up discussion.

Back in my office I taped our single sheet of flipchart paper to the wall and reflected on the progress we had made. Part of me thought about reporting to Mary—to give her an update on what had happened and get her thoughts on how to proceed—but eventually I decided against it. We didn’t have much to show for our efforts, true, but looking at Michael’s sloppy block printing and thinking about the way I had managed to get Gerald engaged in the discussion, I felt like something was beginning to build beneath the surface—something profound, in its own way—and I didn’t want Mary to kill it before we could give it life.

I evidently wasn’t the only one on whom the meeting had made an impression. Shortly after it ended I received a visit from Michael. He came in, closed the door, and silently made his way to the sole visitor’s chair in my tiny office—a cheap, molded plastic thing like you might see in a high school cafeteria. I had to turn in my desk chair to face him, and when I did our knees were almost touching.

“Why is Gerald such an asshole?”

I shrugged. It was one of those questions Michael had a knack for asking—one whose answer contained no wisdom. Michael was never interested in learning anything, only in reinforcing his own myopic view of the world around him.

“He’s old,” I replied jokingly. “He can’t help it. If he didn’t have this job he’d probably be shambling around the park talking to himself.”

Michael did not appear amused. “I’m serious, Alan. He was disruptive in that meeting. And he treated everyone with disrespect. You should’ve called him out for it.”

That was another of Michael’s tiresome habits, offering advice when none was sought.

“It’s all right, Michael. I didn’t mind. I want people to challenge my ideas. You do it all the time. Gerald just does it with less tact.”

“Well, I’m tired of his bullshit,” Michael said bitterly, his anger rising quickly and uncontrolled to the surface. “He’s a smug son of a bitch and he treats everyone like they’re pieces of human garbage. He’s got no right to do that. Just because Mary lured him away from that Fortune 500 company he came from, he thinks he’s untouchable and can treat everyone else like shit. He doesn’t know half as much as he thinks he does.”

When Michael was angry he usually swore a great deal, and would go on swearing for as long as you let him, never seeming to get any satisfaction out of the curse words.

“Didn’t his suggestion make sense?” I asked.

Michael looked at me angrily, clearly unwilling to give his adversary any credit. “He didn’t have to talk to us the way he did. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m going to speak to him. He owes us a fucking apology.”

“Good luck with that,” I said, knowing that Michael would do no such thing and that, if he did, Gerald was likely to punch him in the nose, bulging biceps be damned.

I saw some movement through the glass pane in my door and looked up to see Bethany standing there. Needing a break from Michael I waved her inside. She cracked open the door and poked her head in.

“Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all. Come on in.”

Michael gave me a hurt look, almost as if I had invited a more popular girl to sit next to me at the lunch table, but I knew he wouldn’t say anything about it. Not to me, at least. Someone else, I knew, would get a full dose of his fury later.

Bethany came in and shut the door. There wasn’t a third chair for her so both Michael and I stood.

“Did you come to complain about Gerald, too?” Michael asked.

“What?” Bethany said.

“Gerald,” Michael said. “You know, Mister King Shit. The one who knows more than everyone else combined?”

Bethany gave me a confused look.

I shook my head. “Don’t listen to him. He’s just upset that Gerald stole the meeting away from me before he could.”

I meant it as a joke, but when I saw Michael turn purple I knew I had stepped over the line. He sputtered a few times, trying to find the words to express himself, but eventually gave up and stormed out of the room. I hurried after him, not to catch him but just to keep him from slamming the door. I was only partially successful.

“What was that all about?”

I sighed and motioned for her to take a seat. “Nothing. Or exactly what I just said, but I guess I shouldn’t have said it so bluntly.”

“Do you want to go talk to him?”

“No,” I said as we both sat down. “I’ll apologize later. I’d rather give him some time to calm down first.”

“Well, I don’t think either Gerald or Michael stole that meeting away from you. I think you ran it just fine.”


“No, I mean it. I’m really excited about this project and I’m glad you’re in charge of it, Alan. I really like the things you said about changing the culture of the company. I want to help in any way I can.”

“Well, I appreciate that,” I said. “I think the best thing we can all do right now is come up with some observable behaviors that describe the kind of person we’re looking for.”

Bethany nodded. “I agree. I’m going to give it some thought tonight and bring you my best ideas in the morning.”


“Yeah,” Bethany said. “It’s my night off. One night a week David takes care of feeding Parker and putting him to bed so I can have some time away. I usually go out with some friends or go read a book in a coffee shop, but I’d rather work on this.”

At the mention of her husband I glanced down at her wedding ring, a modest silver band with two inlaid diamonds and a center stone too small for the prongs that surrounded it. They had been married less than three years and their baby, Parker, had been born about six months ago. Parker had gone straight into daycare as soon as they would take him so Bethany could come back to work—the same daycare, despite the cost, that Mary had sent her kids to.

“Don’t do that,” I told her. “Go out and have fun like you normally do. I’m giving everybody a week to get their ideas in. You don’t need to spend your free time on this.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Bethany said. “I really don’t. I could use a break from my friends. And this is important. I want to make sure we do this right.”

I nodded. I was hoping for some enthusiasm around this project, but this felt a little like overkill. Bethany was known in the company for her eagerness to please, always looking for an opportunity to impress the next rung up the ladder. It was probably one of the reasons she had climbed so far at such a young age. She was not yet thirty.

“Maybe once all the comments are in, you and I could sit down and go through them?”

Bethany’s tone was innocent—overly so, I thought. I didn’t respond verbally to her suggestion but my skeptical thoughts must have shown on my face because she quickly started backpedaling.

“I mean, if you think you could use the help in organizing them. There’s sure to be a lot of different ideas. I’m just interested in helping any way I can.”

I let a couple of heartbeats go by. “I’ll let you know,” I said.

“Okay,” she said cheerfully, standing up and evidently deciding to depart before she dug herself in any deeper. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, then.”

I watched her depart, self-consciously observing her slim frame, and found myself thinking about how Jenny had never entirely lost the pregnancy weight she had gained with Jacob. They say breast-feeding is supposed to help women slim down after delivery, but I’m not sure I believe it. Jenny exclusively nursed Jacob until he was eight months old—the boy never deigned to take a bottle from me—but she was unable to shed those extra pounds. And yet the office seemed filled with young professional women like Bethany, who were able to step back into their size six business skirts the day they returned to work, after ardently bottle feeding their babies for six weeks to make sure they were ready for daycare.

Suddenly, the phone rang.


“Hello, Alan?”


“Alan, this is Eleanor Rumford. How are you today?”

Eleanor Rumford. The woman next in line to chair the board of directors of the client I worked for. I had last seen her at the VIP meeting I had attended, when we sat at the same banquet table together and I had watched Mary fawn over her and tell her how right she was. Distracted by the events of the day, I couldn’t imagine why she was calling me.

“I’m fine, Eleanor. How are you?”

“Good. I was just sitting here reviewing the final program proof Susan had sent me and I thought I should give you a call.”

Of course. Our national education conference was coming up in a few weeks, and the proof she was referring to was a catalog that listed all the presentations and speakers for that event. Eleanor was chairing the planning committee and had been working closely with Susan on those details prior to her resignation.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m glad you did,” trying to sound as if I had been intending to call her myself. “How’s it looking?”

“Not very well. The document is riddled with mistakes.”

“Really?” I said, trying to mask my surprise. Susan had shown me the program before sending it to Eleanor. I hadn’t proofread every page, but thought it had been in pretty good shape.

“Yes, really. There are mistakes here that I asked to have corrected in the last draft. And there are also entirely new mistakes in areas that I had previously reviewed and approved. It takes a great deal of my time to review this material. I need to be able to trust that my edits will be made correctly and that pages which have been approved will not be tampered with. Can you understand my concern?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I said, my mind racing and wondering how things could have gone so far afield. But it was clear from Eleanor’s terseness that my primary focus now had to be on confidence building. “Can you email me your list of corrections? I’m sure there’s still time to fix things before the program goes to the printer.”

There was an odd silence on the other end of the line—or not so much a silence as a pregnant pause in which a deep exhalation of breath could be heard.

“There are really too many corrections for me to type them up in an email. I’ve marked the pages Susan sent me with my red pen. I’m overnighting them to you so you can see exactly what needs to be corrected.”

“That’ll work, too,” I said quickly. “Do you want our FedEx account number?” I had learned long ago that when something was broken it was best to take as much of the repair cost as you could off the customer.

“No,” Eleanor said. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. Look, Alan,” she said, softening her tone just a smidge, as if recognizing I wasn’t going to climb into the trap unless there was something sweet inside. “I know that Susan left you in a bit of a lurch, but these items simply must be attended to. I need you to take personal responsibility for this. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, of course,” I said with as much false enthusiasm as I could muster. “I would be happy to. I’m sorry things got so messed up, but I’ll get them right before the conference begins.”

“I know you will. There’s a lot riding on this conference.”

“There certainly is.”

The line clicked off and I held the telephone receiver in my hand for a few moments before putting it back in its cradle.

“There certainly is,” I said again to myself. “For her and me both.”

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, July 22, 2019

Keeping Up with the Waterfall

My association's Board of Directors has eighteen people on it. Whenever I'm comparing notes with other association executives about how big our boards are, I usually joke that I like having eighteen people on my Board because it guarantees that I can get at least twelve to show up at my Board meetings.

I'm only half joking. It's not unusual for three or four Board members to be unable to attend any particular Board meeting. Thankfully, these are not the same three or four Board members every time. It's just reflective of how busy everyone's schedules are and, increasingly, how little control we have over them.

But now a new dynamic has begun to creep into this environment. It's not just busy schedules keeping Board members away from Board meetings. It's job transitions keeping Board members from being Board members.

In the past month, for example, I had two such issues occur. One Board member got a new job at a company outside of our industry. That makes him ineligible (and frankly, uninterested) to continuing serving on our Board. Another Board member got a new job at a company inside our industry -- but that company already had a representative on our Board, and it's a violation of our bylaws to have two people from the same company on our Board of Directors.

I have an Excel document that I've been maintaining for years. It reflects an on-going record of every position on my Board of Directors, who has held each seat, how long each term is, and which positions are currently vacant. Because, like many associations, we stagger the terms on our Board, and because I've color-coded each block of staggered terms to better illustrate how long they last and when they become vacant, one past Board chair once referred to the document as my "waterfall" document, the color-coded blocks cascading down the page in something that appears something like a waterfall.

Keeping up with this waterfall has become a central function of my position. Development of future leaders is not something I can afford to ignore in my association, because there is almost always a Board vacancy that needs filling. And with these latest vacancies, two important things occurred to me as I was manipulating and updating this document.

First, I'm so glad I started this document. Keeping up with all these changes, and communicating clearly with the people that the Excel cells represent -- everyone knowing what position they represent on the Board, when their term starts and when their term ends -- would nigh well be impossible without it. In a very substantial way, it's amazing that there's never been a case when someone came to a Board meeting they shouldn't have or didn't think to call and provide a legitimate reason when they couldn't make one they were supposed to attend.

And second, it's time for a new joke. I like having eighteen people on my Board, not because it means I'll have at least twelve at my Board meetings, but because it means I'll have at least twelve of those positions filled.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

I said I brought the last book I read (Talk Talk by T. C. Boyle) with me on my last vacation. I also brought Nixonland with me. Talk Talk was for the beach. Nixonland was for those early mornings with my cup of coffee.

You see, I had recently read Perlstein’s first book in this trilogy. A work he called Before the Storm, and it told the story of Barry Goldwater and the unmaking of an American consensus. Before the Storm was the best book I read in 2016, the one I chose above all others that I would most want to read again, and I hoped Nixonland, the second book in Perlstein’s series on the conservative movement, just might scratch that same itch.

And boy did it. The American consensus that Barry Goldwater unmade was a political one that reigned under Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy -- an idea that Republicans and Democrats, despite their philosophical differences, were essentially both patriots, both standing for the American way, both comprised of serious people fighting for and working to build a government that served the functions everyone agreed on. That was the America that Goldwater helped unmake in 1964. Nixonland is the story that comes next, where, according to Perlstein’s own subtitle, Goldwater’s unmade America is fractured in service of Richard Nixon’s rise to the presidency.

Only a tiny part of me feels guilty about doing this, but Perlstein’s 3-page preface sets the stage so much better than I can, so here it is in its entirety.

In 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won practically the biggest landslide in American history, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes. In 1972, the Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon won a strikingly similar landslide -- 60.67 percent and 520 electoral college votes. In the eight years in between, the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire. This is a book about how that happened, and why.

At the start of 1965, when those eight years began, blood and fire weren’t supposed to be a part of American culture and politics. According to the pundits, America was more united and at peace with itself than ever. Five years later, a pretty young Quaker girl from Philadelphia, a winner of a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, was cross-examined in the trial of seven Americans charged with conspiring to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“You practice shooting an M1 yourself, don’t you?” the prosecutor asked her.

“Yes, I do,” she responded.

“You also practice karate, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“That is for the revolution, isn’t it?”

“After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible. I desperately wish it was possible.”

And, several months after that, an ordinary Chicago ad salesman would be telling Time magazine, “I’m getting to feel like I’d actually enjoy going out and shooting some of these people. I’m just so gaddamned mad. They’re trying to destroy everything I’ve worked for -- for myself, my wife, and my children.”

This American story is told in four sections, corresponding to four elections: in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972. Politicians, always reading the cultural winds, make their life’s work convincing 50 percent plus one of their constituency that they understand their fears and hopes, can honor and redeem them, can make them safe and lead them toward their dreams. Studying the process by which a notably successful politician achieves that task, again and again, across changing cultural conditions, is a deep way into an understanding of those fears and dreams -- and especially, how those fears and dreams change.

The crucial figure in common to all these elections was Richard Nixon -- the brilliant and tormented man struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s. His story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon’s character -- his own overwhelming angers, anxieties, and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos -- sparks the combustion. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about how he did it -- nothing inevitable in the idea that a president could come to power by using the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s. Indeed, he was slow to the realization. He reached it, through the 1966 election, studying others: notably, Ronald Reagan, who won the governorship of California by providing a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn’t seemed like voting issues at all. If it hadn’t been for the shocking defeats of a passel of LBJ liberals blindsided in 1966 by a conservative politics of “law and order,” things might have turned out differently: Nixon might have run on a platform not too different from that of the LBJ liberals instead of one that cast them as American villains.

Nixon’s win in 1968 was agonizingly close: he began his first term as a minority president. But the way he achieved that narrow victory seemed to point the way towards an entire new political alignment from the one that had been stable since FDR and the Depression. Next, Nixon bet his presidency, in the 1970 congressional election, on the idea that an “emerging Republican majority” -- rooted in the conservative South and Southwest, seething with rage over the destabilizing movements challenging the Vietnam War, white political power, and virtually every traditional cultural norm -- could give him a governing majority in Congress. But when Republican candidates suffered humiliating defeats in 1970, Nixon blamed the chicanery of his enemies: America’s enemies, he had learned to think of them. He grew yet more determined to destroy them, because of what he was convinced was their determination to destroy him.

Millions of Americans recognized the balance of forces in the exact same way -- that America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which. By 1972, defining that order of battle as one between “people who identified with what Richard Nixon stood for” and “people who despised what Richard Nixon stood for” was as good a description as any other.

Richard Nixon, now, is long dead. But these sides have hardly changed. We now call them “red” or “blue” America, and whether one or the other wins the temporary allegiances of 50 percent plus one of the electorate -- or 40 percent of the electorate, or 60 percent of the electorate -- has been the narrative of every election since. It promises to be thus for another generation. But the size of the constituencies that sort into one or the other of the coalitions will always be temporary.

The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name -- but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.

What follows is more than 800 pages of lucid and entertaining prose in which it seems at times like Perlstein is writing about today’s political world and at other times like that of another planet.

They’re Trying to Destroy Everything I’ve Worked For

Let’s start here. “They’re trying to destroy everything I’ve worked for,” the perennial mantra of the frustrated voter. But who, exactly, are “They”?

The stage was set. A march was planned for March 7[, 1965] down U.S. Highway 80 -- thereabouts known as the Jefferson Davis Highway -- to the [Alabama] state capital, Montgomery, fifty miles to the east. At the far side of the point of embarkation, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, stood rank upon rank of Sheriff Jim Clark’s officers, and, outfitted in gas masks, cordons of Governor George Wallace’s fearsome Alabama state troopers. The six hundred marchers, clutching sleeping bags for the five-day journey ahead, were ordered to disperse. They did not. The troopers rushed, clubs flailing, tear-gas canisters exploding, white spectators wildly cheering them on; then Jim Clark’s forces, on horseback, swinging rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire, and bullwhips, and electric cattle prods, littered the bridge with writhing black bodies splattering blood. The film ran on national TV. Over and over. On NBC, the broadcast was cut into a showing of the film Judgment at Nuremberg -- a story about what happens when ordinary citizens turn a blind eye to evil.

“They,” in 1965, were African-Americans, marching. And why were “They” marching?

When another wave of Negroes migrated to Chicago during and after World War II, however, not-so-enlightened reformers boxed them into soulless “housing projects.” You could draw a map of the boundary within which the city’s seven hundred thousand Negroes were allowed to live by marking an X wherever a white mob attacked a Negro. Move beyond it, and a family had to face down a mob of one thousand, five thousand, or even (in the Englewood riot of 1949, when the presence of blacks at a union meeting sparked a rumor that the house was to be “sold to niggers”) ten thousand bloody-minded whites. In the late 1940s, when the postwar housing shortage was at its peak, you could find ten black families living in a basement, sharing a single stove but not a single flush toilet, in “apartments” subdivided by cardboard. One racial bombing or arson happened every three weeks. The job of the mayor’s Commission on Human Relations was to see that none of these incidents made it into one of the city’s six daily papers. Because officially, there was no segregation in Chicago.

“They” were marching to end an institutionalized racism that devalued them and their humanity.

And “They” must be stopped, because remember, “They are trying to destroy everything I’ve worked for.” And who’s saying this? If “They” are African-Americans, then who are those opposed to them, who see them as a threat to their way of life?

August 5 [1966]. Six hundred open-housing activists, ten thousand counter-demonstrators. Some wore Nazi helmets. Others waved Confederate battle flags, carried George Wallace banners, swastika placards that helpfully explained THE SYMBOL OF WHITE POWER.

Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson by his side, led his legions forth: “We are bound for the promised land!”

“Kill those niggers!”

“We want Martin Luther Coon!”

Police trying to keep the two sides apart were screamed at: “Nigger-loving cops!” “God, I hate niggers and nigger-lovers,” a reporter overheard an old lady say.

Martin Luther King walked past.

“Kill him! Kill him!”

“Roses are red, violets are black, King would look good with a knife in his back.”

Instead he got a baseball-size rock above his ear. He slumped to the ground -- the Gandhian moment of truth. “I think everybody in that line wanted to kill everybody that was on the other side of the line,” a marcher later recalled. King got up and kept on marching. We shall overcome.

On the approach to Halvorsen Realty, someone did throw a knife at King’s back. It caught some white kid in the neck instead. Kind had marched six weeks earlier through the Mississippi town where the civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were murdered. He had called it the most savage place he had ever seen. Now he revised his opinion: “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

Those opposed are the white working class -- a white working class that, in these years, is working hard both politically and culturally to separate itself from the downtrodden ranks of African-Americans that are marching for their rights and their ideals. And what’s interesting about that is that forty years previous, the white working class was itself the downtrodden ranks, and then, it was the classical Liberalism of the American consensus that helped them.

Liberals had written the New Deal social and labor legislation that let ordinary Americans win back a measure of economic security. Then liberals helped lead a war against fascism, a war conservatives opposed, and then worked to create, in the postwar reconversion, the consumer economy that built the middle class, a prosperity for ordinary laborers unprecedented in the history of the world. Liberalism had done that. Now history had caught them in a bind: with the boom they had helped build, ordinary laborers were becoming ever less reliably downtrodden, vulnerable to appeal from the Republicans. The pollster Samuel Lubell was the first to recognize it: “The inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping.”

In other words, the have-nots were now the haves, and they had identified a new crop of have-nots to grind their existentialist axe against.

Lyndon Johnson’s poverty programs were doing, after all, what they were supposed to be doing: redistributing wealth, and thus redistributing power. When polled in 1961, 59 percent of the electorate said the federal government bore responsibility to make sure every American had an adequate job and income. Then the government started making modest steps toward that goal, and by 1969, only 31 percent still thought that. The income of non-whites had started rising faster than the income of whites, and though the gap was not nearly closed, many whites’ incomes were beginning to stagnate, even, in real terms, to fall. The War on Poverty came out of their hard-earned tax dollars -- draining money, some whites thought, toward ungrateful rioters.

And it was some very smart politicians who were able to turn this anger to their advantage.

And by this time politicians and pundits were learning to call this inchoate, ambiguous knot -- riots and street crime, flag burning and antiwar marches, children leaving home to drop acid in San Francisco, all of it, whatever the causes and whatever the complexities -- by a disambiguating name: the law-and-order issue.

A Conservative Politics of “Law and Order”

When you paint your opposition as a lawless mob, the rhetoric of “law and order” begins to transcend the rational confines of its textbook definition and becomes a clarion call of righteousness. All across the nation, as police continue to clash violently with African-Americans (and with war protesters), the lines of political battle were drawn more and more starkly.

The debate spread to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Frank Lausche, Ohio’s senior senator, rose to “bow and express my gratitude as a citizen of Cleveland to the police, the firemen, and the National Guard who brought order to Cleveland.” He said their response was flawless.

His junior colleague, the liberal Stephan Young, rose in incredulity, displaying from the August 1[, 1963] issue of Newsweek a picture of an innocent housewife riddled with police bullets: “Surely that is evidence of irresponsible action by police.” He recalled his own experience long ago in the Ohio National Guard, how poorly he had been trained, how inept the young weekend warriors were at handling their weapons. He related the story of a young guardsman during the riot who “thought he heard prowlers. Firing several rounds from a machine gun in a heavily populated neighborhood appears to me to have been the act of a trigger-happy guardsman.” He concluded, “While there may have been extremist groups who grasped the opportunity to exploit the violence … to state that the riots were Communist or otherwise inspired appears to me to be a lame excuse to salve the consciences of those who do not want to, or refuse to, face the conditions that precipitated this disaster and similar ones in other great cities of our nation: rat-infested slums, unemployment, poverty, hopelessness, frustration, and despair.”

Young’s was the harder sell. Senator Lausche keynoted the annual convention of the Independent Growers Alliance at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago: “The current campaign of the worst lawlessness in the history of America,” he told the four thousand farmers, had been “brought to the boiling point by those who are living in luxury by conducting so-called nonviolent crusades.” He got a standing ovation.

This is one of the many times during Perlstein’s book when the surreal feeling of past being prologue overcame me. Placing focus on the “professional protesters” of any inconvenient movement for change is evidently a tactic that was used as effectively in 1963 as it is today.

But more precisely, this excerpt reveals the divide in a nutshell. Those fighting racism are fighting those fighting lawlessness. Both sides are committing crimes. To the oppressed class, institutionalized racism is the greater crime. To the no-longer-downtrodden middle class, it is the defiance of the law.

Conservatives pronounced that Martin Luther King, with his doctrine of civil disobedience, was responsible for his own murder. Ronald Reagan said that this was just the sort of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.” Strom Thurmond wrote his constituents, “We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case.”

Perhaps Ronald Reagan said it best:

“All of it began the first time that some of you who know better, and are old enough to know better, let young people think that they have the right to choose the laws that they can obey as long as they are doing it in the name of social protest!”

It’s a fair point -- but how else does an underclass combat an oppressive system that is full of lies and corruption? Because remember, from the point of view of the status quo, defiance of the law comes in many forms, some real and some imaginary.

Welfare Cheats

There’s a part of Perlstein’s earlier book on Goldwater that really sticks with me: the creation of the myth that our nation’s welfare rolls are filled with lazy people who would rather collect government checks than get a job. It was a myth when Joseph Mitchell, the city manager of Newburgh, New York, pushed it in 1961, and it was still a myth in 1966, when it got a push from a politician of broader appeal.

According to [Ronald] Reagan, in his January kickoff speech, “Working men and women should not be asked to carry the additional burden of a segment of society capable of caring for itself but which prefers making welfare a way of life, freeloading at the expense of more conscientious citizens.” To [California Governor Pat] Brown, it made no sense. If California’s welfare system was overburdened, it was because of elderly people moving into the state for its generous old-age pensions. But the elderly were sympathetic. So Reagan went after supposed abuses of Aid to Dependent Children. Freeloaders on welfare by choice? Pat Brown would never forget what he had learned canvassing the riot zone in 1965. Women told him they were desperate to work but couldn’t find child care; one told him what it was like to scrounge for food to keep her baby from starving the week before her monthly relief check arrived. He remembered, too, that the chairman of his commission convened to study the riot -- the conservative former CIA director John McCone -- had learned that it took a five-hour round-trip by bus from Watts just to file the papers to get on relief -- for a stipend that hadn’t been adjusted for a decade, despite the inflation Ronald Reagan was always carping about (“The $5 you saved twenty years ago will only buy you $1.85 in groceries today”). The Los Angeles Times did an investigation: they could only find abuses in four-tenths of 1 percent of relief cases and editorialized that for the sins of these 180 families, and $31,960 lost from the state treasury, “innocent children whose birthright was poverty” were being put at risk of starvation. “If there is a better answer, it won’t come from demagogic moralizing.”

Inventing enemies of the cause is a tried and true method, both for political fundraising and for amassing electoral votes. As Perlstein meticulously details, those strategies, if not invented, were finely honed during this turbulent time in our history.


Another flashpoint seems to have been enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in which the federal department of health, education and welfare (HEW) was given funds to either grant or deny to school districts based on their compliance with new desegregation guidelines. Although not specifically charged with busing students of one race to schools predominated by students of another, the concept of withholding federal money from segregated school districts was interpreted as meddling overreach of exactly that type.

The House took up debate on a $5.8 billion extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Paul Fino of the Bronx, New York, had combed the language and discovered -- aha! -- that it authorized funds for “pupil transportation services.” The Democratic floor leader was taken aback; the clause, no more controversial than outlays for teachers, textbooks, or chalk, was put there to help districts accommodate handicapped pupils.

“Maybe so,” Fino shot back, “but my fear is that local administrators of this program will force busing.”

John Brademas, a liberal Democrat from Indiana, pleaded for his colleagues to pay attention to “F-A-C-T-S, not allegations.” An “antibusing” amendment was offered nonetheless, by Jim O’Hara, Democrat of Macomb County, Michigan. Buses, not Reds, were what Washington now saw beneath every bed. Roman Pucinski rose in support: “They had auditors crawling through all of Chicago in the school system,” he boomed. “I have educators all over the country tell me that they have to answer piles and piles of questionnaires and fill out mountains of reports while funds are being held up.” In an October 6[, 1966] press conference, President Johnson all but apologized for the drive for school integration: “In some instance there had been some harassment, some mistakes.” These were not the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem, and once more liberals felt blindsided. It made no sense: the nation had made its commitment to racial equality, proudly and with eyes open. How could they be moving too fast when funds were set to be held back from only eighty-nine of seven thousand segregated hospitals and seventy-four of eighteen hundred segregated school districts? “We accept tokenism,” a HEW spokesman wailed. “What more do they want?”

What did they want? In the steel-mill suburb of South Holland, Illinois, one Elizabeth Kluzyk wrote her senator:

Dear Senator Douglas:

It seems HEW is determined to take away the civil rights of the white person … I’m beginning to think our nightly prayer should be this, “Dear God, please save us from the bureaucrats in Washington!”

Like the claims of millions of lazy welfare cheats, forced busing seems like another lie invented to help defenders of the status quo feel like victims.


One thing that wasn’t a lie was the animosity that existed on both sides of the racial divide. It was an animosity built up over decades of mistrust and racism, and exacerbated both by the lawless rhetoric and actions of the oppressed, and the protectionist thinking and conduct of the oppressors. No one can win when neither side can be persuaded that their cause in unjust. Perhaps nowhere in Perlstein’s book are these tragic forces more at odds that in Newark in the summer of 1967.

The biggest city in New Jersey was a frighteningly corrupt town. Mayor Hugh Addonizio, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, once explained his career change this way: “There’s no money in being a congressman, but you can make a million bucks as mayor of Newark.” Its tenements, purchased at fire-sale prices during the Depression, were gold mines for their owners, so long as they didn’t sink any money into them. So Newark had the highest percentage of substandard housing of any American city: 7,097 units had no flush toilets; 28,795 no heaters. Twenty-eight babies died in a diarrhea epidemic in 1965, eighteen of them at City Hospital, which was also infested by bats. The city’s major industry was illegal gambling. Cops ran heroin rings. Food stores raised prices the day welfare checks arrived. All the same, downtown was filled with construction cranes. “Urban renewal” served Mayor Addonizio’s political purpose: by continually scattering Negroes, who were 65 percent of the population, it radically reduced their power.

That’s the backdrop. Now, here’s the flashpoint.

Wednesday, July 12, 1967, police manhandled a cab driver during an arrest. He had bushy hair, and they might have thought that made him a Black Muslim, whose lairs they had recently been raiding. A false report got around that he had died in police custody. Angry citizens massed at the Fourth Precinct. Shortly before midnight, a Molotov cocktail burst against the wall. Police in riot helmets surrounded the protestors. The two sides yelled racial slurs. Kids started throwing rocks. The first liquor-store windows were broken. The looting began; that was always next. Cars with makeshift towlines ripped the iron grates from store windows so their contents could be stripped; junkies cleaned out drugstores; ordinary citizens by the thousands took what they liked from white businesses as fast as they could carry it. Some skipped black-owned stores with SOUL BROTHER signs marking their status like lamb’s blood. Others didn’t. A disgusted Urban Leaguer rued that “carnival air.” Social scientists spoke of “the revolution of rising expectations” as one cause of riots: more and more Great Society abundance all around, success without squalor, beauty without barrenness -- just not so much for blacks. Looters, too, took America’s promises seriously.

Lawlessness. Born of anger and frustration, perhaps, but lawlessness without question. And the initial response?

The mayor and the director of police temporized. That made everything worse. Certain dysfunctional civic responses would become a pattern in urban riots. The only preparations Newark officials had made had been orders to street cops for restraint: maybe that would tide things over. But police who perceived they’d been “handcuffed” tended to act in a less, not more, restrained manner. (The hapless cabbie had been kicked so repeatedly in the groin that by the time he had arrived at the precinct house he couldn’t walk; that was before he was assaulted with gun butts, nightsticks, and dirty water from the jailhouse toilet.) Police were ordered to avoid arrests for looting, for arrests would be an acknowledgement there was a “riot.” Insurance companies didn’t cover riots. Maybe it would die out before anyone went on record using the word. “The situation is normal,” police director Dominick Spina announced, piles of broken glass lying at his feet.

Did that work?

A second wave flared, then burned itself out around midnight Thursday. Relieved officials decided the crisis was over. Mayor Addonizio soon had to admit it wasn’t. At 2:30 a.m. he called Governor Richard Hughes in a panic to call out the state police and the National Guard. Spina announced over every police radio, “If you have a gun, whether it is a shoulder weapon or whether it is a handgun, use it.” The same Governor Hughes who had determinedly refused to interfere with the tenure of the Communist history professor Eugene Genovese during his reelection fight in 1965 announced, “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America.” By 4:30 a.m. the first state police appeared. By 7 a.m. National Guard units had rolled up Springfield Avenue, the Essex County main drag that started in leafy Short Hills and ended in Newark’s heart of darkness. White residents set up shotgun patrols, standing ready for Negroes “to spill over onto white ground.” They shouted at the passing military trucks, “Go kill them niggers.”

And that is what they did. Thus began the second Newark riot: not looting, not arson, but scared office[r]s of the law committing officially sanctioned murder.

Officially sanctioned murder. That’s strong language, but read on.

Three were dead by daylight Friday. One was Rose Abraham, a forty-five-year-old mother of five, out looking for one of her children. Tedlock Bell Jr., twenty-eight, a father of four, a former basketball star, had just told his companions to submit quietly to the police when he was killed. A young man named James Sanders was shotgunned in the back while running from a liquor store. The commander of the antiriot forces, Colonel Kelly of the New Jersey State Police, pronounced that the looting was under control. Another looter was shot dead in the back at the end of the day. His name was Albert Taliaferro. By then nine Newark residents had died.

A group of citizens were milling around outside the Scudder Homes housing project when three police cars turned the corner. The crowd assumed they must be firing blanks -- until a .38-caliber bullet ripped through Virgil Harrison’s right forearm. Men took off their undershirts to wave as white flags. The cops kept on shooting -- at ground level, claiming they were hunting a sniper on the upper floors. That was how Rufus Council, thirty-five, Oscar Hill, fifty, and Virgil’s father, Isaac “Uncle Daddy” Harrison, seventy-two (and perhaps Robert Lee Martin, twenty-two, and Cornelius Murray, twenty-eight), lost their lives. Oscar Hill was wearing his American Legion jacket. Murray’s body was missing $126 and a ring. Robert Lee Martin’s family reported that cops stripped money from his body. There indeed had been snipers in Scudder Homes. But they began shooting an hour later, in response to the cops. They killed a police detective, Fred Toto, thirty-three, a father of three.

Seventy-six residents of Beacon Street signed an eyewitness petition: “At approximately five-thirty PM on the fourteenth of July, most of the residents of Beacon Street were sitting on their porches watching their kids playing in the front. Without provocation, members of the state police approached the corner and sprayed the street from left to right. They shot James Sneade, 36, in the stomach, as he made repairs on his car out front. Karl Greene, 17, was shot in the head as he stood on his sister’s porch.

It’s strong stuff -- to our modern ears, almost like a report from another planet or dimension. But Perlstein keeps documenting the facts. Keeps describing the violence in the simple phrases of a police blotter reporter.

At eight thirty a father driving with his family to White Castle slowed for a barricade. Guardsmen opened fire. His ten-year-old son, Eddie Moss, was mortally wounded in the head.

At around ten thirty, Leroy Boyd, thirty-seven, father of two, was shot to death. A funeral home director reported finding six .38 caliber bullets -- police bullets -- in his body.

A man named Albert Mersier died shortly before midnight after being shot while attempting to load a stolen vacuum cleaner into his car.

By Saturday morning, fourteen square miles were sealed off by National Guard roadblocks, pacifying the rioters -- but not ending the violence. Saturday afternoon twenty-four-year-old Billy Furr got into a debate with a Black Muslim who had just told a Life magazine reporter that the riot would continue “until every white man’s building in Newark is burned.” Billy demurred, “We ain’t riotin’ agains’ all you whites. We’re riotin’ against police brutality, like that cabdriver they beat up the other night. That stuff goes on all the time. When the police treat us like people ‘stead of treatin’ us like animals, the riots will stop.” Furr and the reporter ran into each other later. Furr gave him a beer he’d looted and went back into Mack Liquors. A police car skidded to a halt as Billy Furr emerged with a six-pack. He ran and was cut down by a high-velocity double-0 shot to the head. Particles from three shells went completely through his body and sprinkled the reporter. An errant shot cut down a twelve-year-old boy, Joey Bass, who survived.

At 6 p.m. bullets ripped through the windows of Eloise Spellman, a forty-one-year-old widow, on the tenth floor of the Hayes Homes project. Her son and daughter watched her die. The shooters were guardsmen and state troopers, who reported she died from sniper fire.

Rebecca Brown, thirty, liked to sit at her second-floor window. She kept a color photo of the Star-Spangled Banner clipped from the New York Sunday News on the wall. An adjacent wall was pocked with twenty-six automatic-weapon bullets from street level, one of which killed Mrs. Brown.

Mrs. Hattie Gainer, also on the second floor, was cut down by the same flurry of bullets. A conscience-wracked state trooper barged in as she lay moaning in a pool of blood and cried, “We made a mistake. We shot the wrong person. We’re killing innocent people.” The ambulance didn’t collect her for another three hours.

By Saturday evening four thousand National Guardsmen were harassing residents at random from hundreds of checkpoints set up around the city. A man described driving to the hospital to visit his injured wife: “I saw a guy get pulled from a car at Bergen and Sixteenth Avenue and the cops were beating him.” Officers shot out one of the man’s tires, taunting him from their jeeps. “Kennedy’s not with you now”; “Let’s kill all these black bastards.”

A kid named Howard Edwards drove down from Staten Island to see a girlfriend, who had assured him the riot was over. Since he hadn’t taken out the registration for the ‘57 Chevy he’d just bought, he didn’t respond when the National Guard told him to “Stop, motherfucker.” By some miracle he survived the hail of bullets that ended up rattling Fire House Eleven on Ninth Street and the fire-sprinkler pipes of a nearby factory. One of the fire captains who answered the resulting fire alarm, Mike Moran, a father of six with a pregnant wife, died from a ricocheting bullet. The unsuspecting Lothario whose ‘57 Chevy was responsible for it all spent thirty days in solitary confinement (“I’m sure it was a tommy gun,” a fire captain testified) as the most dreaded suspect in the Essex County lockup, until they finally let him slink back to Staten Island a month later with a charge of violating curfew. The story of the fiendish Negro with the tommy gun who held off an entire company of National Guardsmen, then engineering the false alarm that made firemen his sitting ducks, made good PR cover for what was actually going on: state police going up and down Springfield Avenue, smashing up every not-yet-molested SOUL BROTHER store.

On Sunday afternoon James Rutledge Jr., rummaging through a shuttered bar with three other kids, was shot thirty-nine times. The cops put a knife next to him when they were done and said he tried to throw it at them.

Michael Pugh expired at 1 a.m. Monday morning. He’d been shot by a guardsman in front of his home on Fifteenth Avenue while taking out the garbage. A boy with him called the guardsmen names, and they opened fire. Michael Pugh was twelve years old.

Raymond Gilmer, the last official death, twenty years old, may or may not have been running from a stolen car. He got a bullet to the back of the head.

One more corpse wasn’t included in the Newark death toll: a cop with a conscience who testified against his comrades during the grand jury investigation of the riot died of “occlusive coronary arteriosclerosis” which “visiting friends as 25 Gold Street,” a newspaper said. That address was the police clubhouse.

There is something shockingly common in all these reports of mob violence -- and it was well summarized by the death of this “cop with a conscience.” Not only were the state police and the National Guardsmen violating the laws they were sworn to uphold, they were actively lying, planting evidence, and, evidently, murdering witnesses, in an attempt to shield themselves from blame.

But, in many ways it seems, these authorities needn’t have tried so hard to cover their crimes.

This, too, was another riot pattern: a lack of investigative energy where police offenses were concerned. When the Newark grand jury presentment was made public the following April, it described all these killings in inculpating forensic detail: “Albert Mersier Jr. was fatally shot by a police officer as he was fleeing from the scene of a burglarized warehouse”; “Rose Abraham suffered a fatal bullet wound of the right hip … police were attempting to clear this area of looters.” But each count ended with the identical refrain: “Due to insufficient evidence of any criminal misconduct, the jury found no cause for indictment.” The bullets recovered often weren’t from service revolvers. Some cops had used personal weapons, making ballistic reports uncheckable.

The press was interested in making the carnage make sense. A turkey shoot of grandparents and ten-year-olds did not fit the bill. The New York Daily News ran an “investigation” of the death of the Newark fire captain and called it “The Murder of Mike Moran.” Twelve-year-old Joey Bass, in dirty jeans and scuffed sneakers, his blood trickling down the street, lay splayed across the cover of the July 28 Life. The feature inside constituted a sort of visual and verbal brief for why such accidents might have been excusable. The opening spread showed a man with a turban wrapped around his head loading a Mauser by a window, captioned, “The targets were Negro snipers, like the one above.” In actual fact the photo had been staged by a blustering black nationalist, and what the copy claimed was an upper-floor vantage onto the streets was actually a first-floor room overlooking a trash-strewn backyard. “The whole time we were in Newark we never saw what you would call a violent black man,” Life photographer Bud Lee later recalled. “The only people I saw who were violent were the police.”

CBS camera crews recorded wrenching footage of Uncle Daddy’s funeral. Producers decided not to run it. A sympathetic portrait of “rioters” would have been far too controversial. Concluded Governor Hughes, “I felt a thrill of pride in the way our state police and National Guard have conducted themselves.”

I’ve dedicated a lot of time and column inches to transcribing this lengthy segment of Perlstein’s book. And this, I think, was really my motivation in doing so -- to try and demonstrate the depth of the racial and political divide that existed. The events of Newark show just how uncrossable that divide was. Undertrained and mostly white National Guardsmen and state police, killing out of fear and racism, actively working to hide and obscure their crimes, and then lauded and revered by the established order of their society. Cops are good and rioters are bad, right? I mean, how else can these events be interpreted?

Lying About Vietnam

And then there was Vietnam -- one of the biggest and most complicated puzzle pieces in this whole sorry tale.

Lying about Vietnam: it was now a Washington way of life. The lies started with the war’s ontological premise. We were supposed to be defending a “country” called “South Vietnam.” But South Vietnam was not quite a country at all. Vietnamese independence fighters had begun battling the French since practically the day they stopped fighting side by side in World War II. In 1954 they fought their colonial overlords to a final defeat at the stronghold of Dien Bien Phu. It was the first military loss for a European colonial power in three hundred years. Though these stalwarts, the Vietminh, now controlled four-fifths of the country’s territory, at the peace conference in Geneva they made a concession: they agreed to administer an armistice area half that size, demarcated at the seventeenth parallel (but for some last-minute haggling, it would have been the eighteenth). A government loyal to the French would administer the lands to the south. The ad hoc demarcation was to last twenty-four months, at which time the winner of an internationally supervised election in 1956 would run the entire country.

Sounds good. What could go wrong?

Instead, the division lasted for nineteen years. The reason was the United States, which saw to it the reunification election never took place. American intelligence knew that Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of the independence fighters, would have won 80 percent of the vote. The seventeenth parallel was read backward as an ordinary international boundary. If “North Vietnam” crossed it, they’d be guilty of “aggression.” Meanwhile, the CIA launched a propaganda campaign to depopulate North Vietnam, whose sizable Catholic population was shipped to “South Vietnam” via the U.S. Seventh Fleet. There, they found themselves part of a citizenry that had no reason for being in history, culture, or geography; even as the U.S. pretended -- then came to believe -- they were a brave, independence-loving nation of long standing. Actually the great city in the South, Saigon, had been France’s imperial headquarters. There, France had crowned a figurehead emperor at the tender age of twelve. During World War II, Emperor Bao Dai had collaborated with Vichy France and the Japanese. This was the man the South Vietnamese were supposed to venerate as the leader of their independent nation.

Even as the U.S. pretended -- then came to believe. There is so much packed into that one little clause to explain what happened in Vietnam and why it loomed so large in the political history of the 1960s and 1970s. What started as a lie converted itself into an article of faith. But why?

He was replaced by someone worse; a wily hustler named Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1955, Diem engineered a presidential election between himself and the emperor, with the help of U.S. government advisors, and “won” 98.2 percent of the vote. He then revived the guillotine as punishment for anyone “infringing upon the security of the state.” His favorite rebuff to an insult from a political opponent was “Shoot him dead!” His sister-in-law Madame Nhu, who served as his emissary abroad, told Americans the last thing her family was interested in was “your crazy freedoms.” This was the government to which the United States would now ask its citizens to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Diem was not a Communist. And that, said America, made him a democrat.

I think it was really that simple. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That’s the thinking that drove America’s policy towards the War in Vietnam; and the fact that whole swaths of the informed electorate saw through that faulty premise was not taken as an opportunity for reflection and adjustment. Their dissent, their anger, and, eventually, their lawlessness, was used as a political strawman to advance the status quo. The liars were now lying to themselves to perpetuate their lies.

My Lai

And those lies helped to create a tremendous divide in our country -- perhaps nowhere so emotionally apparent as in the lines drawn around the court-martial of one Lieutenant William Calley.

On March 29, [1970], after the longest court-martial in history, Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley, commander at the My Lai massacre, was convicted of murder by a jury of his military peers.

The My Lai massacre, according to Wikipedia on October 28, 2018, was the:

...mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in Son Tinh District, South Vietnam, on 16 March 1968. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were massacred by the U.S. Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.

Let’s continue with Perlstein’s text:

When Calley had first been called to Washington in June of 1969, he thought it was to receive a medal. He was shocked to learn it was a court-martial: “It seemed like the silliest thing I have ever heard of. Murder.” It betokened a national confusion. His defense lawyer argued, “This boy’s a product of a system, a system that dug him up by the roots, took him out of his home community, put him in the army, taught him to kill, sent him overseas to kill, gave him mechanical weapons to kill, got him over there and ordered him to kill.” The lawyer said the decision to scapegoat Calley went all the way up the chain of command -- better to indict a fall-guy lieutenant than the entire “pacification” and “free-fire-zone” atrocity-manufacturing system. The lawyer tried to call Defense Secretary Laird as a witness. The judge overruled him.

The argument was lent support by the fate of the commanding officer of Calley’s division, Major General Samuel Koster, who had witnessed the massacre from an observation helicopter, complaining only that they weren’t recovering enough enemy weapons. He signed off on an army report that said noncombatants were “inadvertently killed … in the cross fires of U.S. and V.C. forces.” He suffered a mere reduction of a grade in rank. Everyone else involved ended up acquitted or had his charges dropped.

Remember, in war the first casualty is always the truth. And by this time, the powers-that-be were lying about absolutely everything. Like the state police in Newark, it was an entrenched part of their training.

At his sentencing -- life at hard labor -- Calley mewled in a breaking voice about his victimhood: “Yesterday, you stripped me of all my honor. Please, by your actions that you take here today, don’t strip future soldiers of their honor.” But you didn’t have to construe Calley a put-upon innocent to conclude that something stank. “Calley Verdict: Who Else Is Guilty?” read Newsweek’s cover line. “Who Shares the Guilt?” Time asked.

John Kerry [at this time a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War] had an answer: “We are all of us in this country guilty for having allowed the war to go on. We only want this country to realize that it cannot try a Calley for something which generals and presidents and our way of life encouraged him to do. And if you try him, then at the same time you must try all those generals and presidents and soldiers who have part of the responsibility. You must in fact try this country.” It was a common conclusion of liberals. For that reason, Calley became conservatives’ hero.

Of course. In the end, there are no facts that truly separate liberals from conservatives, in that or any other time. One is blue, the other is red. If one goes left, the other will go right. Standing in opposition to the other is the only way they have to define themselves.

The VFW’s national commander led the way: “There have been My Lais in every war. Now for the first time we have tried a soldier for performing his duty.” A little Mormon boy in Utah wrote his senator begging him to intervene: “I’m only eight years old, but I know that Lieut. Calley was defending our freedoms against Communism.” His mother -- many mothers -- had explained that the villagers of My Lai must have done something to deserve it. So did Joseph Alsop. He complained in his second column after the verdict about the way his first one was edited, that “By no fault of this reporter, the persons Lt. Calley was convicted of killing were miscalled ‘civilians.’ … These victims from My Lai in fact came from a ‘combat hamlet’ of a ‘combat village.’ From about the age of four on up, all persons in a ‘combat village,’ of both sexes, are trained to kill. By the iron rules of the Viet Cong, if they do not follow their training, they are killed themselves after one of the VC kangaroo-trials.”

In fact. A strange choice of words, since none of these assertions are, in fact, facts. But facts don’t matter when one is defended one’s ideology.

The American Legion post in Columbus, Georgia, home of Calley’s Fort Benning jail cell, promised they would raise $100,000 to help fund his appeal “or die trying”: “The real murderers are the demonstrators in Washington who disrupt traffic, tear up public property, who deface the American flag. Lieut. Calley is a hero. … We should elevate him to saint.” At a revival at Columbus’s football stadium, the Reverend Michael Lord pronounced, “There was a crucifixion two thousand years ago of a man named Jesus Christ. I don’t think we need another crucifixion of a man named Rusty Calley.”

Yes, it is hyperbole. But like most ideological fights, the hyperbole of the mouthpieces doesn’t shape the beliefs of the masses. It simply gives them voice.

FREE CALLEY stickers blossomed on car bumpers like toadstools after a spring rain. A Nashville record producer slapped a solemn recitation as if in William Calley’s voice over a backing track of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and moved two hundred thousand 45 rpm records in a day. “While we were fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street,” it pronounced. “While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.” The narrator also claimed, of that village of women and children and not a single weapon captured, to have “responded to their rifle fire with everything we had.”

Radio stations played the song in nonstop rotation, interrupted only by calls for donations to Calley’s defense fund. Respectable editorialists were aghast; the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “This is a young man duly convicted of taking unarmed prisoners entirely at his mercy, throwing them in a ditch, and shooting them. Is this nation really to condone such an act, as a strange coalition of super-patriots seems to urge?” The Washington Star said, “The day this country goes on record as saying that unarmed civilian men, women, and children of any race are fair game for wanton murder, that will be the day that the United States forfeits all claims to any moral leadership of this world.” Scotty Reston wondered whether “somebody were going to propose giving Lieutenant Calley the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

It is sometimes necessary to lie -- to deceive oneself, to ignore facts, or invent one’s own -- in order to defend an ideological position. Frequently, the people advancing these lies either don’t see them as lies, or are even aware that they are contradicted by facts. But in the case of My Lai, some of the liars weren’t deceiving themselves. Some knew exactly what they were doing.

And, above all the commotion, Nixon spied a commonality. Superpatriots and peaceniks both thought Calley a martyr. The White House had done its polling: 78 percent disagreed with Calley’s sentence; 51 percent wanted him exonerated outright. Within twenty-four hours the White House got one hundred thousand telegrams, calls, and letters, 100 to 1 for Calley’s release. Meanwhile approval of the president’s handling of Vietnam was heading into Lyndon Johnson territory: 41 percent. The White House alerted the media that on April 7 the president would go on TV to announce more troop cuts. Then the staff got to work exploiting Calley.

Nixon delegated the legal questions to John Dean’s office, which concluded the conviction was by the book, the president was extremely limited in his power to intervene, and any White House interference could have a domino effect weakening the good order of the entire military justice system.

Military justice be damned. Nixon complained that the “lawyers provide no political gain for us on the argument.” Chuck Colson came up with a solution: the president could immediately order Calley released from the stockade until his appeal was decided. On April 1 Nixon made the call to Admiral Thomas Moorer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“That’s the one place where they say, ‘Yes, sir,’ instead of ‘Yes, but’”). The House of Representatives broke out in spontaneous applause at the news. And a man convicted by fellow army officers of slaughtering twenty-two civilians was released on his own recognizance to the splendiferous bachelor pad he had rented with the proceeds of his defense fund, as featured in the November 1970 Esquire, complete with padded bar, groovy paintings, and comely girlfriend, who along with a personal secretary and a mechanical letter-opener helped him answer some two thousand fan letters a day.

At his April 3 briefing Ron Ziegler said before any sentence was carried out, the president would “personally review the case and finally decide it.” Ehrlichman took the podium: this “extralegal ingredient” was appropriate in a case that had “captured the interest of the American people” and that required “more than simply the technical, legal review which the Code of Military Justice provides.”

The political reviews were stellar. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the “Conscience of the Senate,” released a statement: “I think the President performed a very wise and useful service to his nation. … It was impressively evident that the President caused many Americans to pause in their judgment, to gain perspective, and to replace emotion with reason.” Senator Robert Taft (whom Nixon called in other contexts a “son of a bitch … peacenik”) said Nixon had restored the morale of the military. The White House’s private polling showed his actions found favor with 75 percent of the American people. Only 17 percent disapproved.

The legal reviews were not so salubrious. Privately, Secretary Laird complained, “Intervention in the Calley case repudiates the military justice system.” The case’s prosecutor, Captain Aubrey Daniel, wrote the president, arguing in a four-page, single-spaced letter -- made available by presidential candidate George McGovern’s office -- “The greatest tragedy of all will be if political expedience dictates the compromise of such a fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent persons.” William Greider, who had covered the trial in the Washington Post, wondered, “Should it open the doors at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and release all the other soldiers convicted of the same offense as Calley?”

John Dean once more proved his usefulness to the president by crafting the White House’s subsequent talking point: that in such ongoing legal cases “it would be improper and inappropriate for White House staff members to make any comments or statements.” Secretary Laird, Captain Daniel, the Washington Post, and all the rest would just have to howl in the wilderness.

Depraved or simply utilitarian, it is important to remember that this kind of political calculation was not an aberration for Richard Nixon.

Some Irresponsible Candidate

In the fall of 1968, parties engaged in the conflict in Vietnam were at the negotiating table, trying to work out a peace agreement. But there was a problem. Every time the North Vietnamese appeared ready to agree to a condition, the South Vietnamese raised the bar.

The reason was that Nixon had sabotaged the negotiations. His agent was Anna Chennault, known to one and all as the Dragon Lady. She told the South Vietnamese not to agree to anything, because waiting to end the war would deliver her friend Richard Nixon the election, and he would give then a better deal.

The brazenness was breathtaking. The previous May, after the triumphant announcement by the lame-duck president that the United States would be negotiating with the North Vietnamese in Paris, Nixon said that this removed Vietnam from the table as an issue. In Evansville, Indiana, he said, “Let’s not destroy the chances for peace with a mouthful of words from some irresponsible candidate for president of the United States. Put yourself in the position of the enemy. He is negotiating with Lyndon Johnson and Secretary Rusk and then he reads in the paper that, not a senator, not a congressman, not an editor, but a potential president of the United States will give him a better deal than President Johnson is offering him. What’s he going to do? It will torpedo those deliberations, it will destroy any chance for the negotiations to bring an honorable end to the war. The enemy will wait for the next man.” To the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, when one of that hated tribe asked him sharply, “How could you stand up and ask us to vote for you when you don’t want to be specific?” Nixon responded, in tones of wounded innocence, “If there is a chance we can get the war over before this election, it is much more important than anything I might wish to say to get you to vote for me … I will not make any statement that might pull the rug out from under him and might destroy to possibility to bring the war to a conclusion.” Which was true. He didn’t make a statement. He had the Dragon Lady whisper it instead.

This head-spinning stuff would be for future generations to find out about. For now, the bottom line was this: there was no chance of getting the war ended before the election. Because Richard Nixon had made it impossible.

I first learned about this while watching Ken Burns’s documentary on the Vietnam War. I had never heard of it before, and I remembering subsequently describing it to my wife in anonymous tones. “What would you call it if a candidate for president of a country secretly inserted himself into the negotiations for that country to end a war, promising a better peace settlement if the combatant country simply agreed to delay (and therefore continue its aggression and killing) until the candidate got himself elected?”

There’s really only one word for it. Treason.

The Winning Strategy

But it was this same irresponsible candidate for President of the United States -- Richard Nixon -- who would bring this same cold calculus to the problem of getting a Republican (and specifically himself) elected, and fashion the winning strategy. It’s primary appeal was to the increasingly alienated white working class.

“Thank God for the hard hats!” Nixon cried. He had been so delighted by the liberal Pete Hamill’s expose of the political alienation of the white working class in New York magazine in 1969 that he ordered a Labor Department study on the question. Assistant Secretary Jerome S. Rosow had just delivered his report “The Problem of the Blue Collar Worker.” It described a population “on a treadmill, chasing the illusion of higher living standards,” fighting via the only apparent weapon at their disposal: “continued pressure for high wages.” Their only champions “seem to be the union leaders spearheading the demand.” But to reduce the problem to economics, Rosow suggested, was to miss more than half the story. The more profound distress was cultural -- a problem of recognition. Negroes at least had a clamoring lobby -- Daniel Moynihan’s “hysterics, paranoids and boodlers” -- making noise on their behalf. Blue-collar whites “feel like ‘forgotten people’ -- those for whom the government and society have limited, if any direct concern and little visible action.”

Sound familiar? It’s a strategy that still works today.

Here was the germ of a revolution in the Republican’s message. Unless they took workers’ votes from the Democrats -- as Ronald Reagan had in California in 1966 -- Nixon would never be able to achieve the New Majority he dreamed of. But to do so with ongoing economic concessions -- previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed -- offended a more foundational Republican constituency: business. And contributed to the inflation that was driving the stock market into the low 600s.

But to extend to blue-collar workers the hand of cultural recognition -- that was a different ball game altogether. It’s not that right-leaning politicians hadn’t tried it before -- Nixon had done something like it in the Checkers speech, when he styled the people accusing him of corruption as hopeless snobs, and himself as an ordinary striver just trying to make an honest living. But the hard-hat ascendency set into motion a qualitative shift: the first concerted effort to turn the white working class, via its aesthetic disgusts, against a Democratic Party now joining itself objectively, with their Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments, to the agenda of the smelly longhairs who burned down buildings.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long in this post to get to this point, because I think it might be the most important sentence in Perlstein’s 881-page book. The first concerted effort to turn the white working class, via its aesthetic disgusts, against a Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party: enemy of the working man. It was the political version of that New York Times photograph of the stockbroker and the pipe fitter joined in solidarity in the act of clobbering a hippie -- their common weapon the American flag. That white men in ties and white men in hard hats were radically opposed to one another was a foundational left-wing idea. But as a Republican state senator from Orange County observed, “Every time they burn another building, Republican registration goes up.

This was the beginning of a sea change, and one that we are still living with today.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Right Way

It's budget time at the association I work for. And what I mean by that is that the budget for our new fiscal year has been approved by our Board of Directors, and now it's time to code all our projected expenses for upload into our accounting system, and to prepare the worksheet by which all our staff members can be sure to submit their expenses to the right codes as their invoices come in throughout the year ahead.

It's a fairly straightforward yet tedious procedure. For a variety of reasons, much of it has to be done manually. Cutting and pasting from last year will give you a good start, but there are always just enough changes from one year to the next to force you to go through every item, line by line, to make sure each one has the right expense code attached to it, it had the right number, and that number is appropriately allocated for the months in which the expenses are likeliest to occur.

And while we were doing this, something obvious occurred to me. There are hundreds of different ways to code a year's worth of expenses. Reasonable people may have reasonable disagreements about how they should be coded. Some of those people may go so far as to say that their way of coding the expenses is the "right" way to code the expenses.

But, in truth, there is only one right way to code expenses -- and that is how the worksheet we take so much time creating says they should be coded. Someone may think that their way of coding expenses is better, is more efficient, or makes more sense. But those aren't factors that need to be taken into account.

The goal of the exercise, after all, is not to code expenses in the "right" way. The goal is to get everyone in the organization to code expenses the same way. A crazy set of expense codes, after all, is more valuable to the organization than a logical set, assuming that everyone understands and agrees to code their expenses in alignment with the crazy set, and refuses to do so with the logical one. In that case, it is the crazy set that actually provides more reliable and predictive information to the organization.

Remember that the next time you're in a group that seems to be arguing over the right way to do things. Getting it right is often far less important than getting everyone on board.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 14 (DRAFT)

It took me a few days to coordinate everyone’s schedules, but I was eventually able to bring the department heads together to begin what we would come to call the Staff Qualities Project.

Now, when I say department heads I mean the folks who had overall responsibility for each of the company’s functional units—Communications, Human Resources, Information Technology—things like that. Getting them all together was more difficult than it may sound, because in the complicated hierarchy of the company, some of the ‘heads’ reported to me and some of them didn’t.

The company had twenty or so clients back then, and either Mary or Don personally served as the account executive for each of them, unwilling to relinquish that kind of control to anyone else. Most of the clients were fairly small, and could easily be managed in just a few hours a week, but one of Mary’s clients was huge, with far more programs than any of the others. To help her with this burden, she had created a deputy executive role for that client—the only one like it in the company—and that was the job I had recently been promoted to. With this structure it wasn’t clear whether the department heads were above, below, or at my level as the only deputy exec. And it didn’t help that some of the heads actually reported to me, but most of them reported directly to either Mary or Don.

Look, if you want me to I can draw a map of all the solid and dashed lines that made up our stupid organizational chart. In all the years I worked there, I was never able to explain this to someone and have it make sense to them on the first try. I always felt like I needed to provide one of those character maps that accompanied some of Shakespeare’s political tragedies—you know, something you could refer back to when cousins, stepbrothers, and adopted sons started bumping each other off to keep clear on who was next in line for the throne. But for our purposes it’s probably not critical that you understand all these connections in detail. Suffice it to say this was not a group of people I could bring together on a moment’s notice. Although I had been put in charge of the project, I wasn’t in a position to just call a meeting and get it going. In many cases I had to ask politely and drop Mary’s name in order to get a commitment to attend.

The group I was finally able to assemble comprised seven individuals—eight, including myself. There would have been nine of us if we had come together before Susan’s resignation, but by then I was already wearing Susan’s hat as well as mine. Three of these folks I’ve already mentioned. Peggy Wilcox was there as our director of Human Resources, as was Bethany Bishop and Gerald Krieger, the two people I described trading timesheet war stories with back when Mary first took over the company. Oh, and one other person I guess I mentioned before, but not by name. That would be Scott Nelson, the guy they tapped to take over the Accounting department after Mary moved from there to the President’s office. The three other people were Jurgis Pavlov, the cadaverous Russian immigrant who ran our IT department, Angie Ferguson, a hard-nosed and bullet-shaped woman who negotiated all our vendor contracts, and Michael Lopez, who headed up our Communications department.

If ever there was a project designed with Michael Lopez in mind, it had to be the Staff Qualities. He was a young guy—like a lot of us, not yet forty—athletic and hungry. He had worked for some big clients at a couple of PR agencies before coming to us. He was good at what he did, and he knew it. Somewhere in between workouts he had gotten an MBA—something that had endeared him to Mary, who loved nothing more than a staff with a bunch of little initials after their names. Michael had a knack for branding, a good eye for design, and wrote by far the best ad copy of anyone in the company. He could sell you your own shoes and you’d walk away feeling that you’d gotten him to give you the best possible price. But what he did best, the strength he really brought to this project, was his ability to brainstorm.

Gerald had another word for it. It also began with a B.

“Alan,” he had told me when I had invited him to come to the meeting. “If this is another one of those make-work projects that gives Michael a platform from which to spew his bullshit, so help me…”

I sympathized. Brainstorming was like a drug to Michael, and like a ballplayer doped up on steroids, when ideas started getting bandied about the imitation mahogany table, he’d wind up taking bigger and bigger risks, talking more and more out of his ass, looking for that elusive prize that would allow him to both solve the problem and take all the credit for it.

“No, this is serious,” I had told Gerald, choosing to address his concern about make-work rather than promising to rein Michael in. “Mary wants us to come up with a draft. It has to be in place before we start hiring to fill Susan’s position.”

Secretly, I was happy Michael had so readily agreed. In the days it had taken me to get the group together I had spent some time thinking about what Mary had asked me to do, and despite Jenny’s pessimism about it, I had come to see it as a real opportunity to make some positive change in the organization. I was still upset over the way Susan had been treated, feeling that her supportive and inclusive management style was something the company desperately needed. If we could somehow define that as the standard for the organization, and then begin hiring people based on that standard, I thought we might actually have an impact on the company’s miserable and soul-crushing culture. And although I had a clear understanding of what I wanted to do, even as we assembled in the conference room for our first meeting, I wasn’t sure how much of that I should reveal to the department heads, or how we were possibly going to get there.

But Michael was quick to volunteer an idea.

“Why don’t we just start listing off all the attributes we think are necessary for success in the company?”

“What?” I asked.

“Sure,” Michael said. “We’ve all worked here long enough to know the kind of people we’re looking for. Let’s just start throwing out some ideas. We can edit them later.”

I looked around and tried to quickly assess everyone’s initial reaction to the idea. They had greeted me with a whole lot of silence after I had introduced our task a few minutes before, so I was hopeful that Michael’s suggestion would be accepted as a way of getting the discussion flowing. Gerald, of course, was feeding me a scowl, but I judged that everyone else appeared either willing or indifferent to the proposal.

“Come on,” Michael said, getting out of his padded chair and taking up a position beside the flipchart standing like an unknown soldier in the corner of the room. “I’ll get it started.” He uncapped one of the markers and quickly began writing across the top of the paper. “A successful staff person is someone who…” he said as he wrote, pausing a moment to underline the title and placing a bullet point before his first contribution, “…shows initiative.”

Michael turned back to the group, the anticipatory twinkle of his next fix already in his eye. “Who’s next?” His dress shirt was open one button past the collar and I could see the slim gold chain he wore around his neck. “Bethany, how about you? When you think about the qualities of a successful staff person, what comes to mind?”

We all turned our attention towards Bethany, someone I thought Michael had correctly perceived as more enthusiastic than apathetic.

“Ummm…” she said, crinkling her misshapen nose and biting her lower lip, looking like a child trying to decide which flavored toothpaste to get at the dentist. “…supports the mission of the organization?”

She sounded uncertain but Michael accepted it readily. “Good,” he said, writing her idea quickly on the flipchart. “What else?”

“Completes assignments on time,” Angie said, as usual, her voice just a little louder than it needed to be.

Michael nodded, his marker squeaking its way across the paper.

Several more ideas came in quick succession. Jurgis thought the ideal staff person should be able to “solve problems.” Peggy thought they should be a “team player.” The momentum was starting to build and I decided it was safe for me to contribute an idea of my own—something I hoped would start steering us in the direction I wanted to go.

“Thinks creatively,” I said, oddly satisfied to see several approving nods from around the table. Bethany especially beamed at me, as if I had read her very mind.

“Excellent,” Michael said, as he worked to stay with the flow. “Let’s keep it going. What else?”

But despite this encouragement, a sudden silence filled the room.

“Come on, now,” Michael said, turning to face us with his eyes darting about like a quarterback in a huddle. “Who hasn’t said something yet? Gerald, how about you? A successful staff person is someone who…”

“…kisses Mary’s ass.”

It was like hitting a brick wall at sixty miles an hour. Gerald’s hostile tone was startling, but not as much as the way everyone else in the room shut down and turned guardedly toward me. If I’d thought I could let Michael run this meeting, I’d just discovered my mistake.

“Gerald,” I said. “Come on, be serious.”

“I am serious, Alan. With all the other tripe you’re putting up there, you might as well just cut to the chase and save us a lot of time.”

“Gerald,” Michael said, his muscles twitching nervously under his shirt. “We’re brainstorming. You’re not supposed to criticize other ideas when brainstorming.”

Gerald ignored Michael’s reprimand. “Look, Alan,” he said, speaking to me as if he and I were the only two people in the room, “you told me this wasn’t going to be another make-work exercise. Exactly what is it you think we can accomplish with this?”

Gerald was being less hostile, but his question was still a direct threat. Everyone knew he was a kind of lone wolf, notorious for his boldness and his ability to get away with things no one else could—like not showing up for meetings unless he thought they were worth his time. The last thing I needed was to have him openly boycotting this process.

“I thought I stated that fairly clearly at the beginning of the meeting,” I said assertively, not trying to intimidate him, but at least hold my own in the eyes of the others. “We need to identify the qualities most associated with success in the company.”


Because Mary wants us to. That was the response that came immediately to my mind, but I chomped it back, knowing instinctively it wouldn’t serve my purpose. Mary was the club I had used to bring this group together—her desire to see this project done—but I had to be careful not to tie Mary too closely to our effort. No one liked Mary. That was universal. But most people in the company were also afraid of her, including, I knew, several of those sitting around our table. If I wanted them to help me re-invent the company’s culture, I had to keep Mary’s name out of this as much as possible. In a way, I knew Gerald was right. No one was going to contribute any revolutionary ideas as long as her spirit was floating over us.

But right now I had a bigger issue to deal with. Out of the corners of my eyes I could see everyone looking at me skeptically, like a pack of young dogs eyeing the aging alpha male, curious to see how I was going to handle Gerald’s open defiance.

“Because we’ll use those qualities to help us screen new candidates for employment,” I told him calmly, and then I said, “Look,” with sudden passion, using my body language to dismiss Gerald and reach out to all the others around the table. “Don’t you see what a tremendous opportunity this is? Let’s assume we are able to come up with this list of traits, these qualities that define the ideal staff person for the company. It doesn’t have to be a list that describes any existing individual. I’m not looking to enshrine anyone who currently works here as the model we should all aspire to. It’ll be an amalgam of all the best traits of all the best people who have worked here over the years. Once we have that list in hand, HR can start using it to screen applicants. The people they hire will by definition be closer to that ideal standard than they have been before.”

I glanced over at Peggy at the mention of her department and was rewarded with a motherly nod. Encouraged, I went on with even more excitement. “And what if we all start using the same list to conduct our personnel evaluations? Those who strive to embody the traits will be rewarded. Bit by bit, hire by hire, evaluation by evaluation—we’ll start affecting the very culture of this organization, transforming it into something better aligned for success.”

I waited, looking anxiously from face to face, trying to determine who was with me and who wasn’t. Some folks liked working there, but most didn’t—and I was gambling that the majority would be willing to try and change things if they could.

“It sounds great, Alan,” Gerald said softly, tipping himself back in his chair and studying me through the lenses of his designer eyeglasses. “It really does. But what about Mary?”

Like a flash I knew I had to tackle this head on. “What about her?” I shot back, before the mention of her name could suck all the energy out of the room.

“Is she on board with all of this?”

“Why wouldn’t she be?” I said. “She asked me to lead the project, didn’t she? If we do this right, all we’re going to do is make her company more successful and more competitive. Why would she be opposed to that?”

There was a long silence as Gerald and I sat looking at each other, broken only by the sound of Michael repeatedly removing the cap of the flipchart marker and snapping it back into place. The pause gave me ample opportunity to replay the words I had just spoken in my mind and wonder where the hell they had come from. Did Gerald just do that to me? Did he just maneuver me into making a promise only Mary could deliver on? I did the best I could to keep the doubt I was feeling out of the expression on my face, knowing that Gerald and I were playing a kind of chicken and the one who looked less sure of himself was going to lose.

“Well, I’m in,” Bethany said suddenly, and when I turned towards her I found her eyes looking at me warmly. “Let’s give it a shot.”

“Me, too,” Michael quickly added, still standing in the corner and looking a little disappointed that he hadn’t had anything to write down in the last few minutes.

I looked at some of the other faces in the room. I knew I hadn’t won yet. Any one of them could sink me by splashing cold water on the project the way Gerald had. But if they were all willing to follow me, then maybe together we could convince Gerald to play nice.

“Scott, what about you?” I asked, thinking he was the biggest wild card of those who remained uncommitted. He was a quiet one around the office—small and slight and almost certainly closeted. But as Mary’s hand-picked successor as the head of the Accounting department, it was generally assumed he did most of his talking in Mary’s office, reporting back on almost everything he heard. As usual, he hadn’t yet said a word in our meeting.

“Sounds good to me,” he said. “Let’s see where this thing goes.”


“Count me in.”

“Peggy?” My heart quavered just a bit as I realized she was even more a direct line back to Don as Scott was thought to be to Mary.

“I love this idea.”



I turned back to Gerald, a smile tickling the corners of my lips, no longer fearing the inside straight he was trying to build because I had a full house arrayed against him. He was still tipped back in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his face. In a moment, he allowed his chair to fall forward and he placed his elbows confidently on the table.

“Okay,” he said. “But if we’re going to do this thing, let’s do it right.”

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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