One hundred years ago this month, on April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt strode into the Sorbonne in Paris.
Thirteen months had passed since Roosevelt had turned over the White House to William Howard Taft, and the 52-year-old former president was in the midst of a triumphant tour of Europe. The New York Times reported that when he took the platform to speak, "more than 3,000 people rose and cheered him again and again."
Roosevelt's speech was titled "Citizenship in a Republic," and he reflected on what he believed were the duties associated with living in a democracy.
Over the course of time, however, his remarks have become widely known as the "Man in the Arena" speech, so named for a phrase contained in the following unforgettable passage: "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 short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; 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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
Roosevelt's call to action is as inspiring today as it was a century ago. And, with the understanding that the term "man" refers to women as well, we write to suggest that his spirit of robust citizenship should be continually renewed.
Both of us have been privileged beyond measure to devote our careers to serving "in the arena." In our case, the arena has included the military, the legislative and executive branches, and the American Red Cross. But the arena to which Roosevelt referred is not limited to Washington; rather, it can be found in countless communities, and in countless opportunities, across the country.
As the college commencement season approaches and a new generation prepares to enter the workforce, on the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt's speech we encourage Americans of all political persuasions to consider entering the arena, whether through public service or volunteerism.
The need for Americans to enter the arena has never been greater. A stubborn recession, high unemployment rates and a staggering deficit are a few of the many pressing issues facing our nation. At the same time, it is no secret that an increasing number of people are disenchanted with all levels of government.
In fact, at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, when Americans were asked, "Can you trust the government to do the right thing all or most of the time?" nearly 70 percent agreed. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey, released last week, asking that same question. Just 22 percent of Americans said that they can trust the government almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century.
The Pew survey did contain a more encouraging number: 56 percent of respondents said that if they had a child just getting out of school, they would like to see him or her pursue a career in government.
As we pursued our careers, we often joined forces. One of the most memorable experiences of our lives was walking through the Gdansk shipyards with Lech Walesa in the early days after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The future Polish president's Solidarity movement had led Poland to freedom and democracy. We talked of the history being written by the courageous citizens of his country. With a smile, Walesa told us the definition of a communist economic enterprise: "100 workers standing around a single shovel." Then he added, "What Poland needs is 100 shovels."
Because of the recent tragic loss of so many of Poland's leaders, including President Lech Kaczynski, we have been thinking a lot about that conversation and our work with those early Polish leaders. Walesa was talking about men and women who had no role to play in their economy or their nation, their destinies decided not by individual efforts but by an all-powerful government. In short, the arena was closed to them.
It was just a little over a century before Roosevelt's speech when we too were governed by absentee landlords who refused to allow us a voice in our own destiny. Our voice was gained and our destiny was changed by a group of patriots who met in Philadelphia in 1776.
The world has turned over many times since then. Freedom has endured because when everybody counts, individuals are inspired to strive valiantly and achieve great heights. Indeed, America has and will succeed because, not without error, men and women of great devotions and worthy causes are willing to step into the arena.
Bob Dole, the 1976 Republican nominee for vice president and the nominee for president in 1996, was a U.S. senator from Kansas from 1969 to 1996. Elizabeth Dole was secretary of transportation and a member of the White House staff in the Reagan administration, secretary of labor in the George H.W. Bush administration, a U.S. senator from North Carolina and president of the American Red Cross.
LOS ANGELES TIMES