The prime mover

One of the people we lost in 2012 was Jim Naughton. He had an outsized influence on me, and I wanted to take a moment, before the year was over, to tell you about one of his great virtues.

It was one of the greatest virtues a person can have.

Jim was a reporter and an editor, hugely respected in both roles. You can read about his life over at the New York Times—the newspaper for which he covered pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. If you do, you’ll get a sense of the lore surrounding him. Or, as a shortcut, just look at the photo the Times chose to illus­trate the obituary:

The caption: “James M. Naughton in 1996 with a chicken mask he wore.”

To be precise: he wore the mask, and a matching chicken suit, to a pres­i­den­tial press conference. While working for the New York Times.

The lore, as you might already have surmised, is all about Jim as prankster-professional. Trickster-in-chief. It’s good lore — any of us would be lucky to have that kind of lore! — but I always wondered if it was a bit overdone. Like when people find out you like dolphins, so every year for your birthday, you get dolphin T-shirts, dolphin mugs, plush dolphin toys.

I want to tell you about another one of Jim’s qualities, because I think it was more important than his pranksterism, and because it’s one I’ve thought about a lot in the ten years since I met him.

Something amazing happened when you came into Jim Naughton’s orbit. From what felt like the first moment of encounter, he was on your side. And not passively; fiercely. He was suddenly your cheerleader, your press secretary, the newly-elected president of your fan club. He was your champion — but why? How? You were nobody. Fresh out of college. You hadn’t accom­plished anything. I mean, seriously: not a damn thing.

It was like a physics experiment: Jim’s support was an effect without a cause. It was the prime mover.

There was no sense of evaluation, not even generous evaluation, the kind you’d expect from a Yoda or a Mr. Miyagi. There was no sense of passing any test. Or, if you had, it was simply the test of (a) being born, and (b) ending up, by chance, in the same room as this man.

There’s a word for this.

That word is grace.

Grace: when you move through the world believing the best about people at all times. Jim’s beliefs became self-fulfilling prophecies, because he told people these things he believed about them — great things, improb­able things — and they in turn believed him. (You wouldn’t think so, but it requires tremen­dous courage to tell people great things about themselves, partic­u­larly in private. Amplified accolades at retire­ment dinners are easy; whispered appraisals across the desk divider are not.)

Grace: when you extend an offer of allegiance to everyone around you. Jim’s allegiance was not the allegiance of what can you do for me, nor was it the allegiance of you will bring honor to my house. Instead, it was simply the alle­giance of … we are here together.

You could call it a low bar; I call it an open door. The fact that Jim’s support was so plentiful, so available, made its fierce­ness and dura­bility even more remarkable. Basically, it made you feel like you’d won the lottery just by ending up, by chance, in the same room as him.

What a thing, to make people feel that way.

Jim Naughton died in 2012, at the age of 73. He left behind a beautiful family, a set of insti­tu­tions enriched by his contributions, and a whole host of people who now believe improb­able things about themselves.

December 2012, Berkeley