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