A President’s Time
On the day he was inaugurated to his second term, President Nixon gave members of the White House staff a desk diary covering the four years of that term. Each day indicated how many days were remaining before his “Four More Years” came to a close.
On the cover page he wrote, in part:
Every moment of history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. The Presidential term which begins today consists of 1461 days – no more and no less. Each can be a day of strengthening and renewal for America; each can add depth and dimension to the American experience.
The 1461 days which lie ahead are but a short interval in the flowing stream of history. Let us live them to the hilt, working each day to achieve these goals.
This fairly modest gift richly captures the importance President Nixon placed on using his time – and the time given his administration – to achieve the great purposes to which he devoted his presidency.
There is no single, succinct definition of what constitutes the best use of a president’s time. As head of state, chief executive of the federal government, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and head of his political party, a president wears many hats – often simultaneously. Each president must find a way to juggle the demands these different roles place upon him so that he can focus on those matters that only the president can handle.
When President Nixon took office in January 1969 he established a staff structure that remains largely intact today, seven presidencies later. While each president has tinkered with it, none has entirely replaced it. And those that have strayed too far from its central tenet – that a president’s time is his most valuable resource – have seen their decision-making and their effectiveness diminished.
In the Nixon White House, large, lengthy meetings involving the president were held to a minimum. Requests to see the president were vetted through his chief of staff, who rigorously guarded the president’s time. Policy proposals needing a presidential decision were frequently presented in writing. Presidential travel was meticulously planned to make the most of every minute on the road. Most important, the president’s schedule included “open time” for him to think through issues and strategies.
President Nixon valued and guarded that open time. It gave him the opportunity to reason things through, to consider the various consequences of a decision, and to construct an effective strategy for advancing his vision. As John Mitchell told Time magazine, “[The President] is a man who does his homework, and that becomes quite time-consuming.” Of course, President Nixon only had the time to “do his homework” because his staff was so effective at managing the other demands on his schedule.
This structure, of course, had its detractors. Cabinet officers grumbled that the cabinet didn’t meet enough and complained that they lacked unfettered access to the Oval Office. Members of Congress and White House staff members would have liked more “face time” with the president to advocate for a policy or just to collect that valued Washington currency: the ability to say, “When I was meeting with the president the other day….” The media claimed that the president was being isolated behind a “Berlin Wall” constructed by Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kissinger.
Much of the criticism centered on the canard that President Nixon didn’t much like being around people. His critics saw his preference for written memos over face-to-face meetings, for example, as proof of his supposedly misanthropic nature. A fairer reading of the practice, especially taken in the context of his respect for the limited time given any president to accomplish his great goals, leads one to a different conclusion.
If done right, a carefully thought out, well-written memo is almost always a better way to present a proposal. The author of a memo is forced to construct the most cogent, concise presentation for the president’s consideration. That, in turn, provides the president with the information he needs in an efficient format – and if it doesn’t, he will ask for more (or will find someone else who can do it right the first time).
When I was working in President Nixon’s Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey office in the spring of 1990 writing the exhibit text for the Nixon Library, we followed this procedure. As I was preparing to begin writing an exhibit, he would dictate a memo to me (of usually just a page or two) outlining his goals for the exhibit and suggesting tone, content, and direction.
I used that memo as a starting point and would write a draft for his consideration. It would come back marked up in varying degrees. I would incorporate the changes and send back a revised draft. That would continue until he was satisfied with the final product.
This process saved us an enormous amount of time and effort, which was important because we were on a tight schedule. But it also was important because it forced the President to consider what he wanted in an exhibit and because it gave me what I needed to meet his expectations. It only worked, however, because he was willing to take the time to think things through.
My experience is, of course, in no way analogous with the experiences of those who worked in the Nixon White House. On their easiest days they faced pressures, complexities, and challenges of exponentially greater magnitude than anything I tackled during my most difficult. But that’s what made the Nixon White House’s process for managing the president’s time so much more important. It allowed the President to focus on the big picture – and the big picture is ultimately what being president is all about.
For his 13th birthday, Richard Nixon’s grandmother Milhous gave him a framed picture of Lincoln, which she inscribed with a stanza from Longfellow’s Psalm of Life. The inscription read:
Lives of great men oft remind us/We can make our lives sublime,/And, departing, leave behind us/Footsteps on the sands of time.
The future president hung that picture over his bed, and years later still regarded it among his fondest possession.
Over the course of his long career, President Nixon left many footsteps on the sands of time. His ability to do so was made possible, in no small part, because he knew how to use the time given him most efficiently and effectively.