The Audacity of Humility

A lot has been made about the messianic and arrogant images coming off of Barack Obama, not the least of which is John McCain’s new ad. While it’s true that we have had a few successful bullish, “get-out-of-my-way” Presidents (Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, et. al.), there have also been a couple really successful (good or bad being irrelevant) humble Commanders-In-Chief. The name Lincoln comes to mind first, but perhaps a more extreme example is oft-overlooked Calvin Coolidge.

Ever wonder why it’s easy to forget that Coolidge was President? It’s because he really embodied the idea of being a public servant. Let’s make this easy and just go through the gamut of “Silent Cal”.

  • Even though he was the first VP to consistently attend Cabinet meetings, he remained unknown in the public eye and had a lot of people guessing what would happen when Warren G. Harding died.
  • Upon inheriting the Presidency, Coolidge retained Harding’s cabinet (even though they were under scrutiny for scandals) because he wished to uphold the popular election of Harding and the people’s shown desire for Harding’s policies. He did not want to overstep his bounds because, after all, he was elected as VP, not President.
  • When running for President in 1924, he never mentioned his opponents by name and refrained from political attacks.
  • He supported low taxes, free markets, and cut spending to help out the individual American.
  • When dealing with a farming technology bill, he said, “Farmers never have made much money; I do not believe we can do much about it.”
  • He restrained himself from expanding Federal power, noting that his use of certain powers when he had been Governor (MA) was justified under States-Rights Federalism.
  • He did not visit the scene of the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood because he did not wish to be seen as using it for political gain. In fact, he faulted the property owners for choosing to knowingly risk living in such a flood-prone area.
  • Coolidge retired from the Presidency after 1928 because, “Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it—too long!” and not because he wasn’t asked to run again; he was. He also said, “While we should not refuse to spend and be spent in the service of our country, it is hazardous to attempt what we feel is beyond our strength to accomplish.”Even though he quietly ushered in the Roaring Twenties, it’s not so clear that Coolidge’s humility was always a good thing. Looking back, a couple of things on the list above would be abominable today (not visiting a disaster site?!?). But, history must be judged by its own lens. Let’s do that:

Ok, then.

My Point: Looks like whether he was a great leader or not, Coolidge was successful and liked by the people. In the mid-1920s, America did not require a forceful, divisive, arrogant, or otherwise audacious personality in order to prosper economically or feel confident in their President. This is not to say that America should stick with people like Coolidge; no, no, rather it is merely to make known that the most extreme humility can be a formula for success and prosperity, even in the office of the leader of the free world.

I guess this means that you don’t have to be a celebrity in order to lead.


From Commodore Perry