Millions watched yesterday as, during his speech, President Obama continued without interruption despite shouts from the audience warning him that the pregnant woman standing directly behind him was about to faint. In fact, her balance weakened and she almost collapsed before the president hastened to catch her. Then he said with an agile smile, “This happens when I talk too long.”
It is said that a man wanted to embarrass the great poet al-Mutanabbi, so he said to him, “I saw you from afar and I thought that you were a woman”; al-Mutanabbi said, “When I saw you from afar I thought you were a man.” As another such tale goes, the corpulent British Prime Minister Churchill said to the thin George Bernard Shaw, “Whoever sees you thinks that Britain is in a food crisis!”* Shaw then responded, “And whoever sees you knows the reason!”*
In the history of nations such stories are not limited to these. Imagine how a leader might change an embarrassing situation into a lesson or sermon for those listening or, at least, for the questioner himself. As I recall, there is a story about Hillary, the wife of American President Bill Clinton, in which the two of them were at a gas station. When they went to pay, Hillary was surprised by a lively yet warm old man who, lo and behold, was an old friend from college who had dated her and requested her hand in marriage. After they left, President Clinton said to her, “You were dating that man?!” To which Hillary said, “Yes!” He responded to her sarcastically, “Imagine if you took him as your husband and passed your whole life with the manager of a gas station.” Hillary responded to him in a confident tone, “Then I would have made him president of the United States of America and perhaps you would have become manager of a gas station!”*
This example demonstrates that the power of reaction is not necessarily an innate faculty, but that sometimes the powerful influence of a situation can push someone to speak sincerely in order to teach the questioner a lesson he will not forget. Therefore, some leaders attempt to react in a jocular way in order to avoid anger.
There are many examples of this agility in the tales of Imam Ali Karam Allah. When he was asked, “What is the distance between the East and the West?” Karam Allah said, “The sun’s daily journey.” Then someone said to him, “How far is it between the ground and the sky?” He replied, “An accepted invitation.”
We are in urgent need of agile and clever responses more than any time in the past, especially when the person is leading a group of people; where someone can, by means of a brief, smart or funny response, do what slow speeches are incapable of doing. On the condition that his response comes at the appropriate moment, it can influence the depth of the conversation and create an atmosphere of friendship and affection that reveals a pleasant side of his personality.
So let us always remember that, with a word, we can declare a bloody war as well as peace. How many individuals can turn an impasse into spontaneous jokes “like [removing] hair from dough”?**
*Editor’s Note: This quote could not be verified.
**Translator’s Note: “Like hair from dough” is an Arabic idiom that expresses “ease.”