What is Essential is Invisible

Published: September 11, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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During the month of August, comfortably ensconced in my “cone of silence,” I spent most of the time reading a variety of books. While all of them speak to various ethical values, many of the authors were simply good storytellers.

After listening to an interview of former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill, I became interested in reading his account of how he, and other members of that elite force, were able to successfully track down and ultimately kill terrorist Osama bin Laden.

However, The Operator, The Seal Team Operative and the Mission That Changed the World, spends some two-thirds of its text detailing O’Neill’s background and training as a SEAL. While this may be great research for anyone pondering a career as a counterterrorism fighter, I found myself skipping over paragraphs and pages to get to the good parts: O’Neill’s involvement with the rescue of Marcus Lutrell, himself, the focus of the Mark Wahlberg movie, Lone Survivor; the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates, yet another story made into a film; culminating with the three shots fired by O’Neill that “changed the world” by killing the most wanted terrorist in American history.

While O’Neill’s story is sincere and gritty about “that” mission, I found the first account told by Mark Owen in No Easy Day to be a more concise and effective narrative.

Bottomline: O’Neill has my respect and gratitude for his service to duty, honor, courage and country.

One book I wanted to re-read after the election of Donald Trump was Words That Work by Republican strategist and pollster Frank Luntz.

Released in 2007 before anyone, including Trump, had an inkling the billionaire reality star would run much less be elected president, the book is a primer for candidates, business leaders and anyone where language is key to effective communication.

Nonetheless, virtually everything that Luntz presents by way of words and strategy was shredded by Trump during his campaign, except for one important point… “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.”

Clearly, the “right” people heard the “right” things coming from a right-centric candidate who could sell snake oil to snakes.

Bottomline: For those of us who do not possess the Trump gene for responsibility avoidance, much of what Luntz presents is important to know in creating thoughts that can be judged on reason and accountability.

Actor Kirk Douglas’s 2012 book, I Am Spartacus! – Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, was an absolute joy to read not only because I’m a fan of the film and the actor, but because its story of character under pressure is an important reminder that integrity still matters.

Hollywood had been using blacklisted writers like Dalton Trumbo – writing under pseudonyms like Robert Rich – for years, but Spartacus marked Douglas’s actions to change all of that. He was the first actor-producer to give Trumbo his own name for the screen credit he richly deserved. After Spartacus, the blacklist began to fall.

Douglas is a strong storyteller and one of his best stories involves a meeting shortly before the film’s release.

Months earlier, Douglas had secretly promised Trumbo that he would drop the pseudonym, Sam Jackson, and use  Trumbo’s real name in the credits. Up to this point, Douglas was telling everyone that Edward Lewis, the film’s producer, was responsible for the nimble dialog and characterizations. However, Lewis was uncomfortable for taking final credit for something he had nothing to do with.

However, the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, apparently had no problem at all. In fact, during the meeting, Kubrick volunteered to take credit. Producer Douglas asked his director if he wouldn’t feel embarrassed putting his name on something he hadn’t written?

Without missing a beat, Kubrick said, “No,” explaining that he was just trying to help out Douglas and make the sacrifice for the sake of the film.

Douglas quickly sized up the difference in character between the two men: Lewis was a man of “conviction,” Kubrick a man of “calculation.”

Bottomline: We need more stories of integrity, now, more than ever.

I was drawn to Arizona Republican Jeff Flake’s recent book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, again by interview and I’m glad I did.

Flake is one of the few republicans who actively criticized candidate and current president, Donald Trump. While the tome offers Flake’s take on the old Barry Goldwater title, the book is a refreshingly straight-forward and much needed discussion about conservatism.

Goldwater’s fight, Flake observes, was for “the soul of the country,” and the current Arizona Senator strongly believes that the “enigmatic” Trump is causing a “crisis” of conservatism that, once again, threatens the soul of our country.

Flake’s key argument for reason and principled leadership is that, with the election of the divisive Trump, too many Americans have given in to the “politics of anger,” and that Trump’s sole focus is on playing to his base rather than focusing on the vital conservative issues that matter most.

Bottomline: Flake offers conservatives a real chance to reassess just who they are, who they represent and how they can rationally govern. I’ll be revisiting this in another commentary, soon.

In 2016, I had the pleasure of listening to author David McCullough speak about the Wright Brothers. At the end, I not only came away with a deeper understanding of how two bicycle repair and salesmen became aeronautical geniuses, but just how important our history is to us.

His recent book, appropriately entitled, The American Spirit, is a collection of speeches McCullough has given over the years and, like the author himself, they are startling brilliant in their simplicity describing moments in our history.

In a 1999 speech given at Dartmouth College, entitled What’s Essential is Invisible, McCullough offers a variety of stories about several presidents from John Adams to William Howard Taft; from Harry Truman’s controversial decision to fire General MacArthur to Gerald Ford, who’s “decision to pardon Richard Nixon… was also the right thing do have done – not for Ford’s political fortunes but for the country.”

McCullough’s larger point in the speech comes from French author Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince: what’s essential is invisible.”

“…the integrity of [George] Washington, Lincoln’s depth of soul, the courage of Harry Truman… or Ronald Reagan in front of a television camera…”

“And so it is with this large subject of presidential power,” McCullough tells us. “to a very large extent it’s invisible.”

Bottomline: Simply put — when it comes to American history, there is no other writer, and no other speaker like David McCullough. Another commentary on his work in the future.


  1. Thank you for your views on these books. I’ll tell my 6 and 8 yr old I need to expand my book reading beyond Cinderella

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