"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again ... who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly."
Another year gone. Time again for this column which was inspired by the Theodore Roosevelt quotation cited above to take note of some of the people who performed honorably as winners and losers in the public arena. A presidential campaign usually isn't conducive to courage, but, happily, there are honorees on both sides of the aisle this year. Given the lacerating politics of the times, it takes a certain amount of courage to call for sacrifice a euphemism for higher taxes but each of the leading Democratic candidates took that risk during the campaign. Hillary Clinton took the additional risk of revisiting the scene of her signal disaster, health-insurance reform, and producing what I thought was the best plan for universal care of any of the candidates.
But there isn't that much short-term risk in calling for higher taxes (on the wealthy, inevitably) in a Democratic primary. Far riskier and worthy of a Teddy Award is telling party loyalists things they don't want to hear. Two candidates met that test this year. At a moment when other Democrats, like Clinton and Barack Obama, were voting against funding the war in Iraq for political reasons, Joe Biden voted for the funding for the best of all possible reasons: because money was included for bomb-resistant vehicles that will save lives in Iraq. Biden is a long shot, and long shots are expected to be courageous. Obama has been a top-tier candidate from the start, and he wins a Teddy this year for an act of courage that really shouldn't be: in the mildest possible manner, he told the teachers' unions, arguably the most powerful Democratic special-interest group, that he disagreed with them on one of their biggest issues merit pay. He's for it; they aren't. As a result, he lost the endorsements of most teachers' unions, and the army of workers that goes with them.
It isn't news that John McCain is courageous. It was news last year when he wasn't courageous, when he tried to be a standard-issue, all-purpose political panderer, nuzzling up to the likes of Jerry Falwell and changing his position on George W. Bush's irresponsible tax cuts. That didn't work, in large part because McCain couldn't bring himself to change his position on an issue that most likely killed his campaign: his support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That's wildly unpopular in his party. His opposition to the use of torture, including waterboarding, also dismayed hard-core Republicans at a focus group I attended during one of the debates. McCain gets a Teddy Award with oak-leaf cluster for failing "while daring greatly." Mike Huckabee gets an honorable mention for standing by his position in favor of scholarships to public colleges for illegal immigrants who do well in high school. "We never should grind our heel in the face of a child" is a sentiment that should go without saying, but needed to be said to his Republican colleagues.
Speaking of Republicans, GOP Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa gets a Teddy this year for crossing over to the House side and lobbying Republican Congressmen to override President Bush's tawdry veto of a bill to provide health insurance to the children of the working poor. "The House Republican caucus vilified him for that," said Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley, who tells audiences back home about Grassley's courage. "But I was proud he came from Iowa."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rates a Teddy for the speed with which his rational professionalism restored morale at the Pentagon after the arrogant, witless reign of Donald Rumsfeld. In a series of smart, consequential speeches, Gates has separated himself from the ill-considered ideological hawkery of the neoconservatives in one speech, he actually called for an increase in the State Department's budget, which is the first time I've ever heard a SecDef asking for money for diplomats instead of bullets. And finally, I'd like to thank the men and women Gates leads, the members of the U.S. military, especially those I was privileged to meet in places like Baqubah, Yusufia and Baghdad this year. We are honored by your courage, your determination your all-American informality and good humor in the ultimate bloody, dust-blasted arena. Please be safe over there, and in Afghanistan, too.