Here and There

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A closer look at the man in the arena

*First appeared in the Dec. 31, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I’ve always loved Theodore Roosevelt. He embodied my romantic notions about life: To fight valiantly, to hunt big game, to travel the world, to become a published author, to be a frontiersman, to be President of the United States, in a single lifetime.

As we gear up for another round of political goings-on (both the 2015 statewide elections and the more imminent legislative session), I remind you of Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech which he delivered in France more than a century ago. The discourse was designed to highlight the virtues necessary for a healthy republic.

Its most famous lines come about midway through the speech, in which Roosevelt extols the virtue of the man who acts:

“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, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This is, to be sure, an important quote that deserves the repetitive uttering it enjoys; yet, this passage is far from Teddy’s only observation applicable to the current political discourse.

Roosevelt warns citizens against the false gods of oration, saying “it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”

I particularly like the way he phrases these next observations, biting though they are: “The phrase-maker, the phrase-monger, the ready talker, however great his power, whose speech does not make for courage, sobriety, and right understanding, is simply a noxious element in the body politic, and it speaks ill for the public if he has influence over them. To admire the gift of oratory without regard to the moral quality behind the gift is to do wrong to the republic.”

The idea of purity in politics isn’t new (nor is anything under the sun), and Teddy takes this issue head on: “Perhaps the most important thing the ordinary citizen, and, above all, the leader of ordinary citizens, has to remember in political life is that he must not be a sheer doctrinaire. The closet philosopher, the refined and cultured individual who from his library tells how men ought to be governed under ideal conditions, is of no use in actual governmental work; and the one-sided fanatic, and still more the mob-leader, and the insincere man who to achieve power promises what by no possibility can be performed, are not merely useless but noxious.”

Yet don’t mistake this for weakness, for Roosevelt believes the citizen must have high ideals, but “must be able to achieve them in practical fashion…The impracticable visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcomings, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things.”

In Roosevelt’s republic, “to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

I’m hopeful we will remember these words in the coming months when passions run high, as they so often do in the body politic. As Roosevelt said, there is little place in active life for the timid good man. Let us not be timid good men in 2015.

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