Obama, the Confidence Man, and the Virtues of Humility

One thing that neither Barack Obama nor his acolytes in politics and the media lacked was confidence.

DAVID BROOKS:  So there's a lot of very smart people [around Obama], and it's a testament to Obama's confidence.

You know, there was a great quote in a Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker about Obama's confidence. And I'm not going to get it exactly right, but he essentially said, "I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policy than my policy directors. I think I'm a better political director than my political director." It was a speech of confidence.

That was The New York Times' David Brooks' view of the candidate Barack Obama in 2008, speaking on PBS. That statement may not look so much like confidence today. It's the kind of statement that might be made by a man who thought the oceans would cease to rise when he entered the White House.

Today, five long years later, those words are almost painful to read. Apparently, few people in the gushing news media knew the story of Icarus -- the young Greek who flew so close to the sun that the wax on his wings melted and he plummeted to earth.

Barbara Walters, the den mother of the shrill panelists on The View, expressed shock and dismay at the fall of President Obama in public esteem. We thought he was the "Messiah," she moaned.

Republicans should not preen. Americans can remember the over-the-top boast of Newt Gingrich in the 2012 presidential debates. He said, "in my second term, we will have established a colony on the Moon." However good an idea that was, it was the voters place to decide about his having a second term, or even a first. It was not the prerogative of the former Speaker to pronounce. 

With such examples of self-indulgent arrogance before us, we could not have a better time for the new book by David J. Bobb. This accomplished author and teacher has written Humility: An unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue. Dr, Bobb has headed up Hillsdale College's very successful Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C. The mission of this think tank is to better equip the rising generation of students and political activists with an appreciation of America's Founding ideals.

Bobb's book chooses to illustrate the virtue of humility through short biographical sketches of great Americans -- Washington, Madison, Abigail Adams, Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. He teases out of their great careers and standing with the American people prime examples of how they approached their roles with becoming modesty.

George Washington in his own time was hailed as "the man who unites all hearts."

Still, when he resigned his commission to Congress in Annapolis in 1783, he noted his own "diffidence" about his abilities. No victory lap here. No spiking the ball in the end zone. His hands shook as he read his prepared text. He didn't thank his officers, his troops, or the Congress for the long-sought victory in the War of Independence. He thanked only God.

Washington would soon demonstrate his humility again. He presided over the Constitutional Convention for five long months in the spring and summer of 1787.

Philadelphia was stiflingly hot, but Washington made only two very brief comments during the period, even as some long-winded delegates held the floor for hours. Keenly aware of his own lack of formal education, Washington patiently listened to the speakers in the greatest graduate seminar ever held on this continent. Despite some garrulous talkers, Washington was willing to be schooled in economics, history, and political theory.

James Madison similarly spoke little and wrote much at the Constitutional Convention. Each evening, the slight Virginian transcribed his detailed notes of the debates. He would leave us the best record we shall ever have of the reasons each passage of our great charter of freedom. He was no passive scribe, however. He moved early and late to affect the outcome of the debates. And he would go on to powerfully defend the new Constitution in the Federalist Papers and carry the debate in the critical Virginia ratifying convention. Not resting on his laurels, Madison went on to shepherd the passage of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress.

Abigail Adams urged her husband John not to "forget the ladies." She was his best friend and constant guide. Time and again, he turned to her for sage counsel. She lacked his Harvard pedigree, but her native intelligence and indomitable spirit more than made up for any lack. In time, she would leave the Massachusetts farm she had managed so well to be his consort in the royal courts of Paris and London. In both roles, she acquitted herself splendidly and gave the Europeans an example of republican simplicity and virtue.

Abraham Lincoln once told a campaign biographer he could not make much of his early life. It's all there, he said, in Grey's famous Elegy: "the short and simple annals of the poor." Modest as he was, Lincoln wore his learning lightly. How many of our leaders today could quote Grey's Elegy? Or whole scenes from Shakespeare? Or major portions of the Bible?

Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most stunning example of the self-made man. He even devised his own name and birth date. Even more than Lincoln, Douglass rose from beneath the lowest rung of society. Just to place himself on the ladder of success was an act of heroism. He humorously told Scottish audiences he was a thief. He "stole" this head, these limbs, this body. And, noting the fact he had never attended a single day of school, Douglass the former slave would say he had graduated from the South's "peculiar" institution. And bore the stripes on his back to prove it. Those stripes were not the ribbons of a diploma but the scars from the slave master's whip.

In all, David Bobb has chosen five excellent examples of humility in our history. Each one possessed a self-awareness and an appreciation of human failings that marked these five Americans for greatness.

As we look to the future, we should be searching out leaders who do not offer the cure for all that ails us. No president can really "feel our pain." It should be enough if they can faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution.

Ronald Reagan was another great model of humility. When Ted Kennedy toasted Averell Harriman on the Democratic bigwig's ninetieth birthday, he could not resist a snide comment about the president. "You're only half as old as Ronald Reagan's ideas," the Massachusetts liberal sneered.

Told of this, Reagan did not take offense. He actually thanked Kennedy. "Ted's right. The Constitution is almost two hundred years old, and that's where I get all my ideas."

A soft answer turns away wrath. It is also is a great example of humility and the reason why the man was beloved by Americans.

One thing that neither Barack Obama nor his acolytes in politics and the media lacked was confidence.

DAVID BROOKS:  So there's a lot of very smart people [around Obama], and it's a testament to Obama's confidence.

You know, there was a great quote in a Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker about Obama's confidence. And I'm not going to get it exactly right, but he essentially said, "I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policy than my policy directors. I think I'm a better political director than my political director." It was a speech of confidence.

That was The New York Times' David Brooks' view of the candidate Barack Obama in 2008, speaking on PBS. That statement may not look so much like confidence today. It's the kind of statement that might be made by a man who thought the oceans would cease to rise when he entered the White House.

Today, five long years later, those words are almost painful to read. Apparently, few people in the gushing news media knew the story of Icarus -- the young Greek who flew so close to the sun that the wax on his wings melted and he plummeted to earth.

Barbara Walters, the den mother of the shrill panelists on The View, expressed shock and dismay at the fall of President Obama in public esteem. We thought he was the "Messiah," she moaned.

Republicans should not preen. Americans can remember the over-the-top boast of Newt Gingrich in the 2012 presidential debates. He said, "in my second term, we will have established a colony on the Moon." However good an idea that was, it was the voters place to decide about his having a second term, or even a first. It was not the prerogative of the former Speaker to pronounce. 

With such examples of self-indulgent arrogance before us, we could not have a better time for the new book by David J. Bobb. This accomplished author and teacher has written Humility: An unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue. Dr, Bobb has headed up Hillsdale College's very successful Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C. The mission of this think tank is to better equip the rising generation of students and political activists with an appreciation of America's Founding ideals.

Bobb's book chooses to illustrate the virtue of humility through short biographical sketches of great Americans -- Washington, Madison, Abigail Adams, Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. He teases out of their great careers and standing with the American people prime examples of how they approached their roles with becoming modesty.

George Washington in his own time was hailed as "the man who unites all hearts."

Still, when he resigned his commission to Congress in Annapolis in 1783, he noted his own "diffidence" about his abilities. No victory lap here. No spiking the ball in the end zone. His hands shook as he read his prepared text. He didn't thank his officers, his troops, or the Congress for the long-sought victory in the War of Independence. He thanked only God.

Washington would soon demonstrate his humility again. He presided over the Constitutional Convention for five long months in the spring and summer of 1787.

Philadelphia was stiflingly hot, but Washington made only two very brief comments during the period, even as some long-winded delegates held the floor for hours. Keenly aware of his own lack of formal education, Washington patiently listened to the speakers in the greatest graduate seminar ever held on this continent. Despite some garrulous talkers, Washington was willing to be schooled in economics, history, and political theory.

James Madison similarly spoke little and wrote much at the Constitutional Convention. Each evening, the slight Virginian transcribed his detailed notes of the debates. He would leave us the best record we shall ever have of the reasons each passage of our great charter of freedom. He was no passive scribe, however. He moved early and late to affect the outcome of the debates. And he would go on to powerfully defend the new Constitution in the Federalist Papers and carry the debate in the critical Virginia ratifying convention. Not resting on his laurels, Madison went on to shepherd the passage of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress.

Abigail Adams urged her husband John not to "forget the ladies." She was his best friend and constant guide. Time and again, he turned to her for sage counsel. She lacked his Harvard pedigree, but her native intelligence and indomitable spirit more than made up for any lack. In time, she would leave the Massachusetts farm she had managed so well to be his consort in the royal courts of Paris and London. In both roles, she acquitted herself splendidly and gave the Europeans an example of republican simplicity and virtue.

Abraham Lincoln once told a campaign biographer he could not make much of his early life. It's all there, he said, in Grey's famous Elegy: "the short and simple annals of the poor." Modest as he was, Lincoln wore his learning lightly. How many of our leaders today could quote Grey's Elegy? Or whole scenes from Shakespeare? Or major portions of the Bible?

Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most stunning example of the self-made man. He even devised his own name and birth date. Even more than Lincoln, Douglass rose from beneath the lowest rung of society. Just to place himself on the ladder of success was an act of heroism. He humorously told Scottish audiences he was a thief. He "stole" this head, these limbs, this body. And, noting the fact he had never attended a single day of school, Douglass the former slave would say he had graduated from the South's "peculiar" institution. And bore the stripes on his back to prove it. Those stripes were not the ribbons of a diploma but the scars from the slave master's whip.

In all, David Bobb has chosen five excellent examples of humility in our history. Each one possessed a self-awareness and an appreciation of human failings that marked these five Americans for greatness.

As we look to the future, we should be searching out leaders who do not offer the cure for all that ails us. No president can really "feel our pain." It should be enough if they can faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution.

Ronald Reagan was another great model of humility. When Ted Kennedy toasted Averell Harriman on the Democratic bigwig's ninetieth birthday, he could not resist a snide comment about the president. "You're only half as old as Ronald Reagan's ideas," the Massachusetts liberal sneered.

Told of this, Reagan did not take offense. He actually thanked Kennedy. "Ted's right. The Constitution is almost two hundred years old, and that's where I get all my ideas."

A soft answer turns away wrath. It is also is a great example of humility and the reason why the man was beloved by Americans.