December 10, 2015 7:25 AM EST

“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 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 fails while daring greatly.”


The arena was noisy in 2015, scarily so. Powerful gusts of toxic stupidity emanated from the campaign trail. The insane rage of gun violence punctuated our churches, schools and family-planning clinics. The world was sick with crucifixions, bombings and beheadings. Political courage, which these annual Teddy Awards celebrate, seems a particularly necessary commodity in the face of such noise, the courage to stand against a tide of barbarity and incivility.

President Barack Obama had a mixed year. He was slow to respond to the ISIS challenge–partly the fault of rosy intelligence, doctored to belie the jihadis’ growing strength–but he deserves a Teddy for his pursuit and achievement of a nuclear deal with Iran, which may turn out to be a dud or, perhaps, a geostrategic breakthrough in the bleeding Middle East or, perhaps, just a deal that brings Iran back into compliance with the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. His quieter achievement was his continued moderation in the face of constant provocation. Moderation? Conservatives will scoff. But Obama stood firm against his party’s left wing on trade, and he rightly sniped at nativist opponents who proposed an un-American ban on Syrian refugees. He also sang, in the midst of his lovely eulogy for the Charleston churchgoers, which was the emotional highlight of the year, and of his presidency. Thanks, Mr. President. We needed that.

Vice President Joe Biden had a terrible year, given the loss of his son, but he showed grace and a somber humanity–the sort of humanity often trampled at the intersection of public and private life.

This was not a stellar year for Democrats, who are drifting toward entrapment in a blinkered orthodoxy, but we’d be remiss not to acknowledge Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, who, despite a heavily Jewish constituency, supported the Iran deal–he should accept his Teddy for all those other Democrats who refused to be bullied on this issue. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker receives a Teddy as well, for his principled and, above all, careful leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and because he insisted on meeting with leaders of the Israeli intelligence and military communities last January, even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to prevent him.

A Lifetime Achievement Teddy goes to George H.W. Bush, whose good works were revisited in Jon Meacham’s essential biography this year. Bush the elder remains an exemplar of civility in office, especially in the arena of foreign policy, where he remade Europe and reunited Germany after the Cold War by refusing to rub Russia’s nose in its defeat. Now that was a reset! A Teddy should also go to Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, who chose to give this year’s keynote address at the annual dinner of J Street, a moderate pro-Israel group. He was reviled for this by the intemperate Israeli-expansionist right, and unfortunately criticized for it by the normally civil Jeb Bush. But Baker did it for a simple reason: he still believes in a two-state solution in the Middle East, as J Street does and the rest of us should.

Speaking of Jeb Bush, he wins a Teddy for holding on–just barely, on several occasions–to his enlightened positions on education and immigration reform, and for his demeanor. More than a few journalists said Bush didn’t seem to “want it very badly” because he refused to shout and curse and demagogue. Most of his fellow candidates wanted it atrociously. A Teddy, too, to John Kasich, for his sanity and willingness, finally, to fight the rancid hate-mongering that threatened to rot his party. (By the way, Fox News deserves a Teddy for running the best debate–with the best-prepared and toughest moderators–of the season, proving that good politics can be substantive and entertaining.)

And finally, a Teddy to all the diplomats out there–from John Kerry to Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif to the unsung Americans toiling everywhere from Baghdad to the U.N. As Bill Clinton once said, diplomats are the exact opposite of terrorists. They struggle for peace, against all odds, in a world that seems to want only war.

This appears in the December 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

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