The Obama Watch

The Audacity of Humble

What Obama could learn from Gene McCarthy.

By 12.10.13

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There are many adjectives one could use to describe President Obama.

Petulant and prickly are a couple among many I’ve used to describe him.

“Humbler” is just about the last adjective I would use to describe Obama. Yet, during his interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews last week, he used this very word to describe himself:

And I think, you know, the interesting thing about now having been president for five years is it makes me humbler as opposed to cockier about what you as an individual can do. 

I believe Obama’s newfound claim of humility about as much as I believed him when he said, “If you like your health care, you can keep it.” Or for that matter when he said of Reverend Wright, “The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.” Apparently, the same could be said of Obama’s uncle.

Call it the audacity of humble.

Comparing oneself with LeBron James, proclaiming one can calm the world’s oceans whilst adorned by Greek columns, and, for good measure, claiming one is a better policy adviser, political director, and speechwriter than his policy adviser, political director, and speechwriter aren’t exactly the hallmarks of humility.

Now one could make the case that these things occurred before Obama entered the Oval Office. But if the presidency made him humbler instead of cockier, it wasn’t readily apparent when he told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes in December 2011that his legislative accomplishments were up there with those of LBJ, FDR, and Lincoln.

Speaking of former Presidents, would a humble man have recruited Bill Clinton to claim that Mitt Romney would not have made the order to kill Osama bin Laden? Does a humble man, in the presence of other public figures, tell people “it is very rare that I come to an event where I’m like the fifth or sixth most interesting person”?

Given the high esteem in which Obama holds himself, one cannot be surprised at his propensity to utter the word “my” in his speeches. Indeed, during his remarks on economic mobility last week, Obama used “my” 16 times. Of those 16 utterances, he thrice said “my administration,” once spoke of “my presidency” and also made reference to “my Chief of Staff” and “my Secretary of the Interior.”

Recently, I saw a copy of the late Senator Eugene McCarthy’s book The Year of the People in the bargain bin outside a used bookstore near the Old South Meeting House here in Boston. It turned out to be one of the purchases I have made for $1.

Published in 1969, McCarthy recounts his quixotic bid for the Democratic Party nomination in the previous year’s presidential election. At one point, McCarthy makes reference to a speech he gave in Milwaukee in March 1968 shortly before the Wisconsin Primary (which he won). The speech is reprinted in its entirety in the book’s appendix. I draw your attention to the passage in which McCarthy describes the qualities one ought to possess if one seeks the White House:

The office of the presidency of the United States must never be a personal office. A President should not speak of “my country” but always of “our country”; not of “my cabinet” but of “the cabinet”, because once the cabinet is appointed, it becomes something different from the man who may have nominated these persons, even from the Senate which confirms them in office, not of “my Ambassador to the United Nations” but “the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.” This is a conception of an office which belongs not to the man who holds it but the people of this nation; an office which must be exercised by the will of the majority who elect one to office; not in the sole interest of the majority, but by their determination for the good of the entire nation.

Well, he wasn’t Clean Gene for nothing. Agree or disagree with his politics, Eugene McCarthy was a truly humble man and public servant. The Democratic Party will never see the likes of him again. Conversely, Barack Obama views the presidency as his personal office and will hold this view as long as he calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home. President Obama doesn’t do humble.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.