Chris Matthews supplies several rules for public life in Hardball: How Politics Is Played (Free Press, 1988).
One chapter explains why “it’s better to receive than give.” Such surprising rules make Matthews’ book a classic. “Contrary to what many people assume,” he writes, “the most effective way to gain a person’s loyalty is not to do him or her a favor, but to let that person do one for you.”
Take for example a college graduate’s job search. The typical approach is well-described in another classic, What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles (Ten Speed Press, 1972). The young adult makes a list of potential employers (probably using the Internet) and sends each a confidence-flavored resume and an assertive cover letter lightly peppered with exclamation marks. A few more preliminary research hours and a more supplicating approach are probably more effective. Is there someone in the young adult’s circles who might have a weak-link connection to the prospective employer? Might your research uncover that your dentist with whom admittedly your link is weak or maybe the neighborhood funeral director have some connection to a board member of the bank or hospital where you seek employment? Ask a favor of your dentist. Maybe she feels too remote from the bank officer to comply, but she is now invested in your search. The circle of weak-link contacts is growing.
Candidates for office often make the rounds of social clubs, churches, union halls and the like. They tell the citizens what they the candidate will do for them. Matthews describes a famous candidate who avoided the normal circuit. Instead, he and his many family members walked around asking for favors: Can you put John Kennedy’s sign in your window; can you host a house meeting on Kennedy’s behalf? This smart politician, Matthews says, “is not so much demanding a gift or service.” He or she understands that to make a friend, you ask a favor. The successful public person offers “the one thing he [or she also] wants: the opportunity to get involved.”
Matthews has an advantage in compiling his adages and examples. He travels in story-telling circles—in legislative halls, in reporters’ hangouts and more. Those circles are fewer these days. Instead, there is a fair amount of texting and social media exchange about superficialities—what I had for breakfast or where I am going this weekend with no moral or lesson included. Yet public savvy comes through sharing and reflecting on stories.
There’s a clerical grapevine in Chicago. It is, I suspect, withering or is mostly given to gossip. But at its best the clerical grapevine is another example of a story-telling culture that contains lessons for public life.
There’s the old story about a newly minted monsignor who gives a scheduled talk at a conference attended by the then cardinal. The monsignor mentions the desirability of ordaining women. Of course, he had to appear on the chancery carpet, but walks from the cardinal’s office out into the sunshine. This story yields the adage all Chicago priests know: It is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
There’s the one about the newly ordained priests awaiting their assignments. All knew to dread one far away parish and its SOB pastor. The chancery bureaucracy announces the placements over the course of a week—six on Monday, a couple more each day thereafter. The dread increases down the alphabetical line, until on Friday Fr. Zimmer gets the news. He initially balks, but he goes to meet Fr. Tyrannical. After a week the pastor comes to him and says: “I’m not feeling great. OK with you if I go to Florida for a few months?” Sure enough, the pastor dies in Florida and the newly ordained, who handled matters superbly, is made pastor of that terrific parish with many leaders shedding few tears for the departed predecessor. The grapevine adage: The last shall be first. Or, take your lumps early; there’s a plum waiting.
To be continued….
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter about faith and work.