In a dismal political year, these Americans went far beyond the call of duty
“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.”
This has been a terrible year for Barack Obama, a humiliation. Members of his own party, across the sorry South and West, fled from his shadow. He was hammered relentlessly by an egregious opposition. He made needless unforced errors in his public statements. His occasionally negligent foreign policy came back to haunt him, especially in the failed states of Iraq and Libya. But he deserves the lead Teddy—my annual award for political courage, named after Teddy Roosevelt, quoted above—because his policies remain moderate, sane and humane. And by and large, they’ve worked. His executive action on immigration was not just legal but also surpassingly moral—allowing the parents of American citizens to stay with their children. His response to the Ebola crisis, the decision to send American troops to save lives in the African hot zone, was a great example of what America should be doing abroad. His health care plan quietly brought coverage to millions. His stimulus plan, which prevented a depression, paid belated dividends as the economy began to soar. He continued the essential negotiations with the Iranians, which may bear fruit in the coming year. His stubborn sanity is hereby recognized.
The election campaign of 2014 was dismal, but there was one innovation that should be noted: politicians who campaigned by doing public-service projects. One was Michelle Nunn, a not very charismatic candidate who ran for U.S. Senate from Georgia and lost. Nunn, who has spent her life promoting public service, walked her walk on the campaign trail, spending hours cleaning parks and preparing meals for the elderly when she could have been dialing for dollars. Another was Seth Moulton, a former Marine captain and newly elected Congressman from Massachusetts—whose campaign featured teams laced with post-9/11 veterans doing community projects. Moulton’s altruism reflects the values of his military generation—more than 90% of whom say they want to continue their service at home. It seems a concept that should catch on: politicians who demonstrate their desire to serve … by actually serving in their communities.
Speaking of veterans, Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has been an edgy, controversial figure in recent years, a creative critic of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The revelation of widespread corruption and incompetence in the VA, and the dismissal of Secretary Eric Shinseki, proved the value of Rieckhoff’s persistence. His willingness to take flak for his brothers and sisters in arms merits a Teddy.
The 2016 presidential campaign is on and, in its early days, has produced three Teddy-worthy mavericks. One is Elizabeth Warren, who may not run but will certainly influence the Democratic Party’s economic debate. She deserves a lifetime Teddy for her work against the depredations of the financial sector and her ability to explain complex problems in a manner comprehensible to average humans. Another is Jeb Bush, who has challenged his party on immigration and education. And Rand Paul provided a fresh neolibertarian challenge to his party on a variety of issues, especially foreign policy and prison reform.
Political memoirs rarely provide fodder for Teddys, but there were two courageous—and actually readable—efforts this year that deserve the nod. One was Duty, by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which provided a fierce narrative of a public official who fought his own bureaucracy (and Congress) for the benefit of the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. A second was Outpost, by former ambassador Christopher Hill, who is less well known than Gates, but a truly gifted, sometimes hilarious and, dare I say, undiplomatic writer about the frustrations and occasional successes of his work. A Teddy is also awarded to a great career diplomat who retired this year: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who spent decades of quiet service making the world a safer place, from his time as ambassador to Russia to his recent work on the Iran nuclear negotiations. We need many more like him.
Finally, a Teddy seems hardly sufficient recognition for those courageous journalists who lost their lives in pursuit of the story this year, especially those beheaded by ISIS. It is a reminder, though, that we, too, live in the arena.