THE BLOG
01/31/2011 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

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

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 now that the Chicago Bears are in 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.