The prime mover

In 2012, a man named Jim Naughton died. He had an outsized influence on me, and I want to take a moment to tell you about one of his great virtues.

Actually, I think it might be the great virtue.

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 matching chicken suit, to a presidential press conference. While working for the New York Times.

The lore, as you might 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 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 one of those great cosmological puzzles. 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.

We are here together. You could call it a low bar; I call it an open door. And 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.