“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”: The Coach and the President Heed an African Proverb

African-American leaders know better than to frighten their followers. Shouldn’t the rest of us know better than to berate them for their self-restraint?

The people who’ve spent the past several seasons calling for the head of Coach Lovie Smith on the grounds that he’s “ignorant and weak” and “emotionless” (among many less printable adjectives) are nowhere to be found since he led the Chicago Bears to the NFL Conference championships. Having failed to bury Smith, they absolutely refuse to praise him.

Why?   Because Coach Smith is a soft-spoken professional who leads not by shrieking but by—well, leading.   Chicagoans, particularly Chicago sports fans, can’t seem to wrap their heads around the notion that this gentle man— this gentleman—could possibly be any good at coaching football. That’s because the mold for Da Coach was set by Mike Ditka, a screaming, foul-mouthed, temper-losing maniac whose heart attack only narrowly missed taking place on the field.   If you’re not yelling like that, you must not be leading.

But if Coach Smith behaved like that—berating his players and abusing the press in rants liberally sprinkled with profanity—we’d hear nothing but tut-tuts about what an angry black man he was.  Probably neither the fans nor the team itself would be willing to follow him.  It’s no accident that the most successful African-American coaches — Tony Dungee, Mike Singletary, Lovie Smith — are all matter-of-fact and free of braggadocio.   That’s the way black men have to negotiate the world to avoid waking the not-very-soundly sleeping dogs of white racism.

Which brings us to the case of President Obama.   Everyone who derides him for not being tough enough—for not being Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson—seems to forget that they’re speaking of someone whose life has required constant attention to the problem of being non-threatening.   That’s quite a challenge for a man who’s tall, brilliant and black.

But the President has succeeded at it through a combination of self-deprecation (“a skinny kid with a funny name”) and unshakable composure (“No-Drama Obama”).   If instead he’d emulated FDR in saying of his opponents “I welcome their hatred,” Fox News would have announced that he hated all white people. (Oh, right, someone on that network did that anyway.)   If like LBJ he’d insisted a reporter accompany him while he used the toilet, he wouldn’t be considered a lively and original character but just some ghetto type who didn’t know how to behave.

Consider the reportage when the president held a news conference explaining his decision to make the tax-cut compromise.  Having answered a series of questions designed to get him to say that he’d betrayed his promises, his party and his people, he was finally irate enough to respond, “It’s the health care battle all over again. Some people would rather rest in their purity than get something done,” or words to that effect.   As a rebuke goes, his was a pretty mild one.   But it was sufficient to produce several weeks of headlines about how the President had “scolded” his party and how “angry” he was.   If he’d actually been angry, we’d probably have seen articles of impeachment.

So all the people who want to give the President—and the Coach, for that matter—lessons in leadership should bear in mind that both men have learned precisely how much force they can use before that force is turned against them.   And they haven’t learned it from the Op-Ed pages or the screaming-heads fests.   Experience keeps a hard school but we will learn at no other.

I myself wrote—but fortunately did not post—the following incredibly misguided advice:

I understand the President’s unwillingness to assume the role of Angry Black Man into which his opponents wish to thrust him. But when the people on the other side of the table are card-carrying members of the Paranoid Style in American Politics, it’s time to stand up and call them the proto-fascists they are.   And hoping they’ll be willing to compromise seems a deliberate act of denial, like whistling past the graveyard. Instead, Barack Obama should emulate Harry Truman.   Give ’em hell, Barry!

WRONG!   As the Tucson shootings demonstrate, the last thing we need right now is public officials giving each other high-decibel hell.   And even if hell were called for, a black man in power couldn’t be the one to deliver it.   That’s an indulgence reserved for powerful white men—and every powerful black man knows it. It’s time the rest of us learned the same lesson.

The volume of reproach and disappointment and disapproval and correction directed at Coach Smith and the President says nothing about their leadership ability.   It’s purely a reflection of the fears and fantasies a significant subgroup of American white people have about American black people.   The fact that one of them produced a championship team, and the other achieved the health-care reform none of his white predecessors could manage (among many other victories), demonstrates that they’re far better leaders than anyone less challenged could dream of being.

So let’s stop giving them hell.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

9 thoughts on ““Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”: The Coach and the President Heed an African Proverb”

  1. Sadly you're probably right. It's a hard discipline to follow though when watching any hope of action on the issues which you believe will tear this country down is going from long shot to completely impossible. Real work on AGW? Never going to happen. Slowing or reversing income disparities? Foolish dream. Leveraging our great wealth to prepare, even slightly, for an energy constrained future? Lost battle. Welcoming not-so-white people into post industrialized lifestyles with honor, pride, and anticipation of the problems it'll cause? We've decided to be sore winners slowly becoming the new losers. Defending great public institutions sufficiently that they can change with the times instead of breaking? Starve it and kill it! Advancing the progressive project by learning from our successes and failures, refining our understanding of our own principles and our understanding of other viewpoints? We stand a confused mass dispersed among our opposition struggling and failing to hold off encroaching moral bankruptcy.

    I'd hoped to be a member of a generation that could be seen as remembering who we are and what we stand for through difficult transitions, making the decisions that would lead to a better than could have been expected world guided by sound and wise principles future generations could follow. That was childish. It would be nice to have been in a generation that Got Angry and through intelligent and vigorous fighting won some hard battles and defended the most important ground. I'm realizing that was childish too. Seems like ours is to hold our dignity close, accept we are not what we thought we were, our society was always a sham, our principles are mere coping devices while we face our own uselessness, and try to stay calm and sane enough to pick up a few important pieces as they fall off and get trampled.

  2. Mike Singletary should not be on the list of most successful African-American coaches. He also doesn’t fit your description of “matter-of-fact and free of braggadocio.” Try Mike Tomlin instead.

    I wouldn’t call the Bears a “championship team.” They’re an above average team which managed to make the conference championship this year, but they weren’t notably better than Atlanta, New Orleans, Philly, or New York, let alone Green Bay. They continue to be plagued by a mediocre offense despite adding a quarterback who looked like a star in Denver; 2006 was the only season of the Lovie Smith era when the offense even came close to average.

    I agree with you about Ditka and Obama, though.

  3. Many Chicago White Sox fans also seemed to turn against their gentlemanly manager Jerry Manuel, who was fired in 2003 after his team won 86 games. It was painful at the end, seeing Manuel trying half-heartedly to act like the other style of coach. Ugh. His replacement, a much more volatile fellow, won 83 games in 2004 (and to be fair, the Sox won the World Series in 2005). Fans (or many of them, at least) appreciate seeing grown men screaming at an umpire from one inch away. This problem goes beyond Chicago, beyond race, and beyond sports or politics.

  4. Well certainly the speak softly has been in view, not so much the big stick.
    We have a war that started by lying to the American people and to the world, and a regimen of torture. Yet none of this has been repudiated, and none of the “evildoers” face any justice. In fact, Eric Holder saw to it, none will ever face consequences.

    The financial crisis of 2008 has seen no one brought to justice for massive frauds, and we have simply enabled the fraudsters to “turn the machines back on” with taxpayer dollars.

    Health Care, the public option is allowed to be spiked by a supposedly piqued and spiteful Joe Lieberman with no consequences. Was he really doing the bidding for the administration who wanted to pass mandatory health insurance instead of health care. (We’ll see how our Supremes deal with this issue).

    Corporations and the powerful can buy all the influence one could desire, but they need a compromised administration as well.

    Where are the big programs that REAL economists said were needed to revive the economy? Half measures are what we got.

    Climate change? Crickets.
    Obama didn’t need to scream and shout to get this stuff into the mix, he had to lead, and he isn’t a leader.

    More like all talk, No stick!

  5. I don’t think you can possibly be saying that any “reproach and disappointment and disapproval and correction” aimed at Obama by a white person is nothing but a reflection of his/her fears and fantasies about black people.

    But it sure sounds like it. What did you mean to say?

  6. Lost me at Singletary. Very good man, not so good coach. As for the other stuff, meh.

    Regarding Harry Truman, here’s what comes to mind for me: “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s Hell.” You know, that can be done with the voice of sweet reason. It would drive them crazy, but there is nothing “angry” about it. Kind of like when I point out this fine graphic from the NYT to my Republican interlocutors:
    I never have to raise my voice as they spit and sputter. But somewhere deep down the cognitive dissonance grates on their self-satisfied nerves. And progress is made. But when it comes right down to it, I think the President identifies more with Jamie Dimon that the millions of us who mistakenly voted for him, with unnatural enthusiasm. And that is a bigger problem that his having to tiptoe around the knife edge of predominantly GOPer racism.

  7. @KLG: That’s a great chart and a terrific way to discompose Republicans. And the more of us out here distributing it the better. If Obama promoted it himself he’d be treated as a braggart–or, as the old expression goes, “uppity.”

    @Swift Loris: I meant what I said, which is that the volume (by which I mean amount or quantity as well as intensity) of criticism is what reveals the nation’s institutional racism. People didn’t treat Richard Nixon with the disrespect Obama encounters even while RN was being justifiably run out of town on a rail. We can all criticize the President and it’s our duty to do so, but I would argue it’s also our duty to be aware of the din we’re helping to create, which din makes it harder for him to lead.

    @Jim: You really think the hostility to Jerry Manuel had nothing to do with his being black?

    @Vince: Maybe I’m attributing to Singletary the coach the attributes I observed in Singletary the player, which DO include matter-of-factness and lack of braggadocio. I accept your proposed substitute. And as for my poor Bears, well . . . some years they break our hearts, is all I’ll say.

    @Dr. Buzzsaw and Rick G: I don’t think pointing out the likely origin of the President’s often-infuriating coolness constitutes conceding that we can’t get anything done. I’m reminded of FDR’s reported response to some demand of labor: “I agree with you; now make me do it.” Everything is more politically costly to Obama than to FDR, which means it’s all the more important for him to have us (progressives) around to make him do it. I just want us to stop acting like the problem is a failure of leadership (and indulging ourselves in lectures on the subject) when I believe it’s actually political leadership–meaning politics-the-art-of-the-possible-political–of a particularly graceful type under particularly difficult circumstances. Or, more briefly, grace under pressure.

  8. PS I think the President is completely wrong on education, that Arne Duncan is a fool and his efforts to export Chicago’s educational catastrophe to the entire nation are fundamentally misguided. But I don’t think that’s a failure of leadership–just a subject on which we disagree.

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