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With all eyes riveted on the Oval Office, with a dizzying, traumatic hypervigilance, it seems quaintly prelapsarian to think the White House once could have been a symbol of probity and civility for the world. However benighted the current reality, the White House and its occupant, as symbols of Democracy and representative of the country, once were a site of aspiration for a preferred vision of the future for citizens of America and the world.
George Washington gave great thought to how the first "President" of the "United States of America" should carry himself as representative of the people. We are left now with "The People's House" inhabited by someone who clearly gives little thought to how anyone feels about him, or us, or the U.S. Certainly, traditional presidential comportment and decorum have been upended. Indeed, the very premise of this book – "treating people well"- is no longer something our President or we as a country can agree on as being useful or even desirable
Treating People Well's bipartisan authors, Lea Berman and Jeremey Bernard, who worked as social secretaries in the Bush II and Obama White Houses respectively, try gallantly to make the case that civility is a necessity in politics and in life, but their breezy, conversational tone risks getting lost in the cacophony of the present.
As P.M. Forni, author of the canonical, Choosing Civility has said, "We work for civility when we are smart enough to imagine its rewards," which Berman and Bernard clearly do, but which no longer is a widely shared vision. However, it is worth remembering that civility is not just for chumps or losers and that, sometimes, nice guys and gals do finish first.
If we accept the premise that civility is, as Yale Law professor Stephen Carter has said, "the sum of the many sacrifices we are called for the sake of living together," then readers will find Treating People Well to be a worthy addition to the shelf of books intended to ease our lives through the inevitability of relationship and community.
As one might expect, Treating People Well is an inviting read, precisely what you would imagine a chat with a White House social secretary to be like. They ever so discreetly share some dish about what a high-powered and stressful place the White House is. But though they offer us a glimpse through the windows, we don't ever get to hear what everyone's talking about inside. Berman and Bernard provide an insider's perspective on the White House for those interested in the history of the presidency, though certain specifics necessarily have been elided. The overall effect of Treating People Well is as a primer on broader issues of character.
"Grace under pressure" seems to be the main skill of the White House Social Secretary, and it is a lesson for those interested in civility more generally. We stay civil not because others always are, but because we are. While this is a skill that can be required (and faked if needed) for the workplace, it also raises question of character outside of the workplace.
What kind of people do we really want to be? Do we really want to sacrifice for the sake of getting along? How do we act when no one is watching? Do we believe that "The Good Life" is comprised primarily of relationships, and that civility offers some of the etiquette and tools needed for getting along with others?
We are wise to remember that within a few decades that vast majority of the world's population will live in urban settings. "Civility" derives from the words civitas and civilitas. These historic terms were used to describe the skills necessary to be citizens in good standing in and of the city. Though we remain segregated by race and economics, there are important spaces under the "Cosmopolitan Canopy" (markets, libraries, parks, etc.) where people from different backgrounds interact and where exposure to others who are different can promote comity.
For 2,000 years it has been clear we cannot retreat behind walls and point our fingers at "those people," who we like to think don't know how to behave themselves in our privileged communities. We will increasingly be living together, and we will need the relational competence provide by a civil stance in order to manage.
The White House used to be a place that tried to symbolize the bringing together of people of difference. It now seems to be largely a House of whiteness.
In reviewing what White House social secretaries do to manage themselves and others, especially those who are very different, Treating People Well offers basic character structures for the rest of us to be able to move with similarly purposeful poise through the vagaries of our own lives.
Planning is a crucial component since spontaneous social events run the risk of careening out of control. This trait often begins to be taught at the kitchen table and in school since children are terrible planners. Charm and humor, and tact and honesty, are essential tools of civility, according to Berman and Bernard, as are the abilities to deflect and manage situations before they go awry. But finally, what Berman and Bernard describe most of all is the strength of character needed to not give one's power away and get drawn into the quarrelsomeness or pettiness of those who are uncivil. As Michelle Obama advocated, "When they go low, we go high." This is the quintessential stance of the White House social secretary and of the civil individual most broadly.
Again, we stay civil not because other always are, but because we are - especially when it's difficult, and seems so antiquated, given the hostility stirred up in and around the White House over the past furiously-paced year. Treating People Well offers an antidote to the current efforts to deride and conquer and reminds us of what civility once stood for in the highest office in "United States."
© 2018 Daniel Buccino
Daniel Buccino is the clinical manager of the Johns Hopkins Broadway Center for Addiction and the Director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative.