Monday, January 29, 2018
One day when I was working as a senior editor at Church magazines, I had the opportunity to interview Elder Russell M. Nelson. I’ve looked high and low for the link to the printed interview, but the Church’s search engine is so pathetic that I can’t find it. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s there somewhere on lds.org.
The interview was a unique experience. I interviewed the Sunday School General Presidency. That was a lot of fun. They loved to chat. I also interviewed the Presiding Bishopric. That too was a fun experience. My interview with Elder Nelson, by contrast, was, well, unusual. The whole process started when the managing editor gave me the assignment. He informed me that I would be given a list of interview questions cooked up by people higher on the organizational food chain than I was. I would need to send these questions to Elder Nelson so that he could prepare his answers.
I received the list of questions and contacted Elder Nelson’s secretary. She had me send the questions over. Not long after this, I received word back that the questions were unacceptable. These were questions, I was informed, that any Seventy could answer. He wanted questions more appropriate for his calling as an Apostle. So I went back to the higher-ups, and they concocted another list of questions. I sent these over, and Elder Nelson liked them better, so we scheduled the interview.
I had a photographer with me and a tape recorder and a note pad. We were ushered into Elder Nelson’s office. He greeted us pleasantly but not warmly. As I recall, there was no interest on his part for small talk. I don’t remember him asking me anything about myself. I got the feeling that I was just another item on a very busy schedule. And the interview confirmed this impression. The photographer set up quickly, and Elder Nelson let me know I should start asking my questions.
I asked the first question, and he gave a concise answer. He was very well prepared. After he finished his answer, he just stared at me, as if saying, “Next question.” So I asked the second question. He again gave me a concise, well-prepared answer, then stared at me silently, waiting for the next question. So it went. There was no conversation. Just a list of questions and several well-prepared answers. The interview didn’t take very long, and soon I was on my way back to my office with a recording of the interview. The photographer had a few good images to illustrate the interview visually. I wrote it up and sent it to his office for approval. It appeared in print, even though I can’t find it now.
I came away with the impression that this man was extremely efficient. I assumed he had to be. He had been a world-class heart surgeon, a Church leader, and a father of ten, whose children each thought she or he was the favorite child. That’s impressive. I read somewhere that Elder Nelson got up at 4:30 in the morning to practice the organ. He took a half hour out of a busy schedule to grant an interview for the magazines. But I didn’t ever feel that he enjoyed the experience. I found it rather awkward myself and was glad when it was over.
My point here is not to criticize President Nelson. The Apostles are all individuals. They have different strengths and weaknesses. Not everybody can be a Gordon B. Hinckley in an interview. Not everybody has the interpersonal skills of an L. Tom Perry. I rode the elevator with him a few times, and he was just comfortable with people. He would strike up a conversation with whoever was on the elevator. One Christmas, when he was one of our advisers (yes, the Church spells it this way), he and his wife visited every office in the Curriculum Department, wished each of us a merry Christmas, and chatted for five minutes or so. He didn’t have to do this. None of the other Apostles ever did. But that was who L. Tom Perry was. He was at home with people. But he wasn’t a heart surgeon or a Utah Supreme Court justice or a brilliant theologian.
President Nelson is an impressive man, but we need to remember that he is who he is, and we shouldn’t expect him to be Thomas S. Monson or Gordon B. Hinckley. He will bring his own strengths to the presidency, and he will bring his own deficiencies, just as anyone else would. Sometimes we expect perfection of fallible human beings who are doing their level best to somehow measure up to the unrealistic expectations of millions of Mormons. We should cut them a little slack.