The greatest presidents in our history were men of remarkable humility.
George Washington was the most admired man in America when he was chosen as the nation’s first chief executive, yet as he headed from Virginia to New York to take the oath of office, in April 1789, he was anything but full of himself. To his diary, he confided that he embarked on the presidency “oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.” He would do his best “to render service to my country,” Washington wrote, but had “less hope of answering its expectations.”
Abraham Lincoln, though a shrewd political genius, was no narcissist with a bottomless thirst for applause. Rather than sideline his most powerful rivals, he famously appointed them all to his cabinet. When he had been guilty of misjudgment, he was candid enough to say so. “You were right and I was wrong,” he wrote to Ulysses Grant after the Battle of Vicksburg, when the general’s strategy proved more astute than the one Lincoln had urged. When an author asked if he might dedicate his new book to Lincoln, the president agreed on one condition: “that the inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning.”
Humility is out of fashion these days, particularly in the presidential realm. The current occupant of the White House is a pathological braggart, who boasts about everything from the size of his brain to the size of his crowds to the size of his fortune. Donald Trump claims to have “the world’s greatest memory” and to “know more about ISIS than the generals.” He even declares himself “much more humble” than anyone realizes.
Trump’s immodesty is plainly off the charts, but his predecessor was also possessed of a severely swollen ego.
“I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Barack Obama boasted as a candidate for the White House. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that . . . I’m a better political director than my political director.” His accomplishments, he informed an interviewer in December 2011, superseded those of every other president, with the “possible exceptions” of Lincoln, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson.
Arrogance is always unattractive, but in political leaders it is also dangerous. It blinds them to their own shortcomings and leaves them unusually vulnerable to confirmation bias. It tempts them to reject information that contradicts what they’re inclined to believe — and to denigrate or ignore the views of even honest critics and dissenters.
“The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders,” concluded a 2014 study in the Harvard Business Review. What is true in the corporate realm is even truer in government. Humility is an inoculation against blind certitude. It’s the virtue that makes it possible to learn from criticism, and thus better able to recognize truth.
As a George Washington University freshman long ago, I took a year-long seminar on “Politics and Values.” It was an illuminating course in many ways — among other things, it was where I first encountered the writings of Milton Friedman. But what I value in retrospect above all is a rule the instructor enforced during our heated classroom discussions: Before you could challenge another student’s point, you had to summarize it to prove that you understood it. When you have to restate arguments you disagree with, it makes it a little harder to regard opposition with the contempt that is now routine in American social media and public discourse.
“We live in the age of arrogance,” writes David Blankenhorn in The American Interest — “an unforgiving, intolerant, anger-stoked age of . . . alleged binary political choices in which your position is entirely wrong and mine is entirely right.” Our culture badly needs more humility, the only antidote to the polarizing arrogance doing so much harm to US society.
Each of us could stand to be less belligerent and dogmatic, “to doubt a little of his own infallibility,” as Benjamin Franklin pleaded in his final speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. There are objective truths in this world, but we ought to insist a little less rigidly on our ability to perceive those truths — and be a little less disdainful of those whose perception differs from ours.
To repeat: Our greatest political leaders have not been arrogant egomaniacs. The best public servants embody humility. Fourteen months remain until the presidential election. I’m looking for a candidate humble enough to deserve the job.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to his free weekly newsletter, Arguable, click here.