In a recent column for the Washington Examiner, Gene Healy of the Cato Institute suggests that Barack Obama could learn a thing or two from Calvin Coolidge. In particular, the president might take a lesson from from Silent Cal’s modesty.
Calvin Coolidge, a genuinely humble man and a fine president, wrote in his autobiography that it was “a major source of safety to the country” for the president “to know that he is not a great man.”
Healy’s got a point, albeit one suffused with a dollop of wishful thinking. Yes, it would be nice of modern presidents weren’t consumed by their own grandeur. But were their predecessors ever really so humble?
I might buy the argument that George Washington was humble. After all, not many men turn down an offer to be king. But then again, Washington didn’t either.
Still, Washington had an appreciation for both opportunity and responsibility. He knew when it was time to step up, but he also knew when it was time to step down. That’s a fine thing, and every one of his successors — save one – has followed his lead.
But that doesn’t mean Washington was humble. Indeed, plenty of evidence suggests that his character included plenty of vanity and ambition. And I think it’s fair to say that every other president has been similarly infused with a keen appreciation of his own self-worth.
Which brings us back to Coolidge. Was he really humble? Well, maybe. Certainly, his governing style suggests that he didn’t consider himself indispensable to any situation.
But Coolidge was also a deeply ambitious politician who managed his career and public image with the utmost care. His was not an accidental presidency, either in origin or execution. The “Silent Cal” trope captures something important about Coolidge, but it also obscures his goals, ambition, and skill.
Coolidge, I think, believed deeply in his own capacity and character. I think he yearned to be president and did what was necessary to win — and keep — the job.
What’s striking about Coolidge is not his humility, but his respect for things larger than himself. Coolidge had faith in Coolidge, but he also had faith in America, its people, and its political institutions. In that sense, I think the title of his campaign book, Have Faith in Massachusetts, is revealing. Deep down, I think Coolidge believed he was a great man — or at least a pretty damn impressive one. But he believed that America was much greater.
So readers: tell me what you think? Was Coolidge humble?one