Michael Steele: Leadership by and for the people

Michael Steele clenches his fists at the podium as he addresses the Res Publica Society dinner audience.
November 1, 2021

“Y’all need to buckle up,” Michael Steele warned at the beginning of his speech at CMC’s Oct. 26 Res Publica Society dinner. 

“Because I’m going to push you a little bit, try to move you out of your comfort zone. Because I think as a nation, as a people, we are way too comfortable and way too forgiving of the kind of leadership that has taken hold of politics and the direction of our nation. And you need to do something about it.”

It was a bold beginning before an engaged, politically savvy audience, both live (in Los Angeles) and virtual—one that followed Steele speaking to a full room on campus at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum the night before.

In Los Angeles, CMC President Hiram Chodosh introduced Steele—the first African-American to be elected to statewide office in Maryland (he was lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007) and the first African-American chairperson of the Republican National Committee (2009-2011)—against a picturesque backdrop, from the rooftop of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Wilshire Boulevard. 

“Like so many self-described Lincoln Republicans, he struggled with the current directions and dynamics in the Republican Party, a house he helped to build that now seems occupied by people with values that are inconsistent with his own, and yet he has not left that house,” Chodosh said of Steele. “Why? Because he believes in our country. He believes that leadership is the key to sustain our democracy.”

Chodosh urged the audience to listen to Steele’s example, quoting, “I know some people hate me. … That's not going to change what I think or believe. … I've lost elections before, but I've come out on the other side being able to look in the mirror every night and say, ‘You're OK, kid. Keep it going.’ And if you can't do that, then you're just not ready to engage.”

Chodosh asked: “Does that sound like a CMCer or what?”

With characteristic candor and clear passion, Steele addressed the current state of politics and the urgent need for responsible leadership and engagement—two guiding principles of CMC’s 75th Anniversary

Black and white photo of Robert Day and friends gathered around a piano where two people are seated and playing.
 

Leadership, he said, requires “honesty, dignity, commitment, truth. Simple things. But it’s up to us … we the people.” 

Throughout his rousing talk, Steele circled back to the words of the nation’s founders. “The most powerful words in all of our founding documents are the first three of our Constitution: ‘We the People.’ Because it is we the people that will make this union what it is.”

Growing up in the 1960s in Washington, D.C., “which was then still segregated in many respects,” Steele learned about leadership from his mother, a Democrat who worked low-wage jobs to support him and his sister. When he took the oath of office to become the seventh lieutenant governor of Maryland, he realized the promise of the words the founders had written. “Literally 500 yards down the hill behind the Capitol, Kunta Kinte was brought to this country as a slave. … That’s America.”

The founders gave people the power to govern, not ideologues or a single party, Steele reminded those listening. “You need to decide what kind of country you want to be. … When you stop wanting to form a more perfect union, guess what you get? What we’ve got.”

During the previous night’s Ath talk, Steele offered a similar call to action. He pushed CMC’s student leaders to overcome the cynicism and apathy that blind partisans feast on. “That’s deflection, people. That’s not taking responsibility. That’s not owning up to your role in all of this. … remember, you have a stake in the system.”

Steele specifically pointed to the young leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the wake of the 2018 Parkland, Florida shooting as heroic examples of grassroots change and the power of collective purpose. “Those students took a risk. To beat up on the system, to push the system. Because they watched their classmates die in front of them.

“I’m not saying you have to be the political genius or guru,” he added. “I’m saying you have to invest in your country and your culture—and find out how you can best give to it.”

Despite his concerns about the path we are on, Steele remains hopeful due to the promise of we the people. In both of his talks, he called upon CMCers to be the “the decision makers and the leaders who will direct the course of this 245-year-old experiment.” 

“That’s part of why you’re here [at CMC],” Steele said. “To learn how to stand up, to learn how to be a voice that respects the voices of others, that listens to the pain, the joys, the anguish, the ups and downs of others, but then are ready to engage and act in a way in which you can then help someone else.”
 

Julie Riggott and Thomas Rozwadowski

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