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People I Hate, Negotiation and the Presidential Election

In 1967, being at serious risk of having my life carelessly misappropriated and quite possibly sacrificed in the pursuit of the absurdity of the Vietnam War that seemed to serve little purpose other than the fulfillment of the egos and political machinations of older men, President Lyndon Baines Johnson was the bane of my existence. He was, for me, the identified chief evil doer and because he was closer, trumped even Ho Che Minh. My youthful passion and the man’s deserved reputation for deceit allowed me to be all the more certain of that truth. And, since he wanted my body, I took personal offense, and found it easy to believe it was not just his different perspective on the threat of the spread of Communism, but him personally that deserved my hate. In retrospect, I may have taken a bit too much pleasure in his having been hounded from office.

I was brought back to that earlier time by Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson’s consummate biographer, in an op-ed piece he authored in the New York Times (8.28.08), “Johnson’s Dream, Obama’s Speech.” That article together with my own personal response to the nomination of Barack Obama for President of the United States triggered a measure of reflection. While Obama appears qualified by any standard, he is the first person of color to have ever earned that honor; an event that I never considered a realistic prospect at all in the United States, let alone one I would witness in my lifetime.

Even though as a candidate, he will need to be politic and necessarily play down this accomplishment, presenting himself as a ‘down to earth- just like you’ American who happens to be of color, the historic importance cannot be underestimated. For me, however, regardless of the election outcome, it offers an important personal marker that goes beyond the obvious. This circumstance, in good measure, came about because of the groundwork laid by President Lyndon Johnson, the man I hated.

There is little doubt that Obama’s nomination came about in large or largest measure because of the deep and abiding ideological and spiritual commitment of those who participated, and the many who literally gave their lives in a civil rights movement that in varying forms has spanned two centuries plus. As Caro poignantly notes, however, the way was also paved by the “savage will,” by the often overlooked political manipulations and maneuverings of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s.

Those bold moves were not easily predictable and, in fact, seemingly improbable given his actions and positions throughout his and long legislative career. If anything, as a proud member of the Southern Bloc confirmed and offered further justification for my hatred. Johnson, as Caro meticulously records, had been, “…not merely a voter but a strategist against civil rights; ….he had voted against every civil rights bill—even bills aimed at ending lynching.”

But Johnson threw a wrench into my hatred works: this same man, because of his “legislative genius,” “cajoling,” “threatening,” and overall deal-making acumen, helped to bring about some of the most important civil rights legislation in our nation’s history. From 1957 to 1965, culminating with the Voting Rights Act, Caro observes how Johnson set the stage for Obama in 2008.

This has not been the only wrench in my personal works, but it is an important one and offers a lesson not easily learned, or simply learned once and forgotten. In fact, during my career as a negotiator I have had to continually re-learn it, keeping up my guard against myself. Holding myself back from the belief that I can know another persons’ heart or motives. Age has helped somewhat; being older obligates slowing down a bit and and more frequently take a backward view of life. L.B.J., not unlike many others to whom I have attributed tales of villainy, have taken on a different coloration with time. But even age is not enough by iteself. My professional work has also helped. As a professional negotiator and mediator, I am continually challenged to deal with my gut level, responses to people and circumstances. It can be risky, both to like them too much or not at all. The pretension of trying to appear and present myself as ‘neutral’ is mostly unrealistic and unhelpful, if not plainly absurd. To do this work responsibly requires my own constant monitoring of my own raw fears, anger and gut responses to people whose values I question or actions I detest. It does not come easily. While others appear to be naturally disposed to a more positive view of people, I am not. Over the years, I have learned that managing my emotions, not unlike going to the gym to hold in check the physical toll taken by my sedentary habits, takes constant discipline, training and conditioning to manage my potentially wayward biases.

Caro’s article was a good exercise. Another exercise that I have developed over the course of the last eight years, is to ask myself the question how I might maintain my balance were I to be the mediator in a hypothetical, but plausible, case scenario where one of the parties was President George Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney and the issue was a wrongful death action brought by the parents of their 19 year old son killed in Iraq as a result of having inadequate body armor. Could I manage, given my abject rage that so many kids are dying needlessly in Iraq, a war about which I have serious questions?

Some might quibble and try to dissociate themselves from my use of a word as strong as ‘hate’ to describe my feelings. Such language is generally thought unprofessional; some might expect for me to be able to suppress my feelings and more closely control how I express myself. But other terms don’t do my feelings justice. I don’t just dislike what I have seen happen; I am not merely disturbed; I do not just find their actions problematic; I detest those actions and the people who are responsible for allowing those events to happen. Thus, such intellectually veneered and toned-down terms are simply inaccurate, if not downright disingenuous matched against my intense gut dislike of a President who appears all too willing to sacrifice the lives of young people in dubious battle. Allowed to start, my rant would include a whole list of other accumulated grievances, including the number of people who die or go bankrupt because of a lack of health care, the cavalier violation of the civil liberties and constitutional rights of so many citizens, and too many others to recite here. Once begun, like anyone else, I cannot be expected to be rational, or even consider another point of view.

By I am a professional conflict manager. So, could I do it—could I sufficiently acknowledge and validate, as would surely have to be done as a mediator, the views of Bush or Cheney, were they willing to engage in mediation?

The current presidential campaign offers an especially good opportunity for mediators and negotiators to test themselves. In the emotional heat and passion stirred by partisan politics, there are an abundance of loaded terms thrown out in every medium, from cable bloviators and bloggers to the ‘real’ journalists and expert commentators. Each defines for themselves the worthy ‘public interest’ and each names the clearly antagonistic ‘special interests.’ The allure of believing there are good guys and bad guys, good policies and bad policies, and an innate ability to know the difference, is deep, abiding, and not easily escaped by even the most determined.

So my hatreds are in good company; I know who to watch to reinforce what I know to be true, and I am clear about the enemy. Back to the gym for another workout. But just as a workout benefits from a thought out routine, an organizing frame is useful to manage my gut responses. Nicholas Lemann, in a piece he wrote in The New Yorker, “Conflict of Interests: Does the wrangling of interest groups corrupt politics—or constitute it?” (p. 86-92, Aug 11& 18, 2008), offered such a prophylactic against my being seduced by the temptation to choose sides.

Curiously, Lemann discussed a book written in 1908, The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures, by Arthur Fisher Bentley, once considered a classic, is now, as Lemann notes, relatively obscure. . It isn’t ‘fool’-proof, but it helps both in my work in negotiation and conflict management as well as a helpful lens through which to filter the view of the current election with its’ multiple hot button issues, cultural skirmishes and lines drawn in the sand between warring groups.

Better than a century ago, Bentley observed then what is often overlooked in the present day clashing of morally based, values oriented politics. The “wheedling of interest groups….” regardless of their stated mission, like them or not, whether the pro-Israel lobby (AIPAC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Sierra Club, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the lobbies for the Insurance or Pharmaceutical Industries, or even the National Rifle Association (NRA), “….(in) their interactions, do not distort ….but constitute politics.”

Bentley offered a pragmatic, amoral, sobering and realistic appraisal of the purpose of all interest groups, commenting unapologetically, that “there is no such thing as a transcendent public interest, and no politics that (does ) not involve deal-making, disguised or not.” He rejected any assertion or attribution of a higher purpose to or by any group as little more than a cover for the collective interests of that group. He went so far as to even include the ostensibly sacred ideals espoused by the Founding Fathers of the United States. (p 88-89). Progress, if any there be, is a determination made after the waxing and waning of the power among the different interest groups. Caro effectively agrees with Bentley, suggesting that Barack Obama’s nomination to the Presidency, is less about “… a miraculous increase in the appeal of racial equality to the nation as a whole,” but rather, the result of a “…civil rights era movement by African –Americans who organized to make life better for themselves.”

Bentley’s pluralist notion offers a conceptual frame that allows for sidestepping the moralistic tinges of values politics. That is especially useful for me personally and in my professional work as a negotiator because peoples’ motives are stripped out of the equation and become less important compared to what they need to obtain out of the deal to move forward.

The task is to avoiding the stifling grip of nihilistic thinking that presumes nothing can change, while at the same time bracing against an unrestrained optimism that the election of ‘good’ Democrats will cure a body politic riddled and infected with Republican wrong-headedness and corruption. Thomas Frank (The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, 2008) and Anne Coulter fail to recognize that many and varied interest groups are compelled to negotiate and deal with each other, not out of reasoned action or good will, but because there is no alternative.

There is little to be gained by denying my hatred— as a point of departure. Strong emotions are a good source of energy and can be strategically harnessed in pursuit of an agreement. Emotions too tightly controlled can limit a negotiator’s effectiveness, at the same time, unmanaged anger is an obvious deal killer. Ultimately, nothing changes without a deal being made. That work does not require me to like or even respect those from other or opposing interest groups, but it does obligate me to move beyond self imposed emotional constraints.

Experienced practitioners recognize that deals are seldom transcendent or transformative events. Negotiation, more often than not, especially in difficult matters, is a dirty and risky business and the result of hard, and sometimes tedious work.

This means one of the best ways to judge a person to be a President, or for that matter, any leader, is on their ability to negotiate a deal.

Clear rational analysis, studies, good intentions and carefully drawn plans, including a wonkish command of details are important in managing complex issues and problems, but they are not enough; nor is the desire for peace, justice, and empathetic understanding of others sufficient to give muscle and bone to change. Change must be negotiated into existence; it can not be imposed or forced. Negotiation strategies, techniques and skills are the essential lubricant of a pluralist society. They are nowhere more critically needed than in the current climate of values politics filled with righteous hatreds and offenses taken. Ironically, the old, quaint notion of pluralism is, perhaps, more important than ever to help shift characterizations of opponents from devils to mere obstacles to be strategically engaged, managed, finessed and co-opted.

Unfortunately, even though effective negotiation is fundamental human skillset, upon which our very survival depends, it is seldom emphasized, taught or discussed in any systematic or rigorous manner in schools or even in professional training. Few people—including our supposed business and political leaders who need it most —- have carefully studied when and how to negotiate. It has largely been left to be learned ‘on the job,’ in a haphazard, hit and miss fashion, when it requires intensive study, commitment, and discipline.

Ironically, forty years later, after a career dedicated to being a professional negotiator, I am obligated to admire he who was once the object of my ire. I may be more like LBJ than I care to admit. While I don’t care to imitate his style, I like to think that I have a tenacious and “savage will” when it comes to seeking workable agreements, much like Johnson did in pursuit of the civil rights that altered the course of this country. He intuitively understood the demands and realities of a pluralist culture. That is the ‘right stuff’ required to work with the most difficult people in the harshest of circumstances to bring about a deal that might change, and potentially, even save lives.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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