By Holly McCall
In 1910, one year after leaving the presidency, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt delivered a speech at the University of Paris — better known as the Sorbonne — titled “Citizenship in a Republic.”
The speech is better known as the “Man in the Arena” speech, and you may be familiar with it as one portion is oft-quoted these days by politicians patting themselves on the back for their work and for letting their detractors know they don’t care about about criticism:
“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 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 neither know victory nor defeat.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee quoted a portion of the passage in his second inaugural address on Saturday, adding that — and I paraphrase — those who don’t approve of his work and vocalize their disapproval are guilty of “toxic incivility and divisiveness.”
“Civility’’ has become a catchphrase in media and politics for the discouragement of critical analysis — and by “critical,’’ I mean several definitions of the word, including “involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work” and “expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgments.”
Often, I hear Tennessean Democrats refer to U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Lee as “idiots’’ or “stupid,’’ and neither of them fit that bill. It takes, at a minimum, a generous amount of savviness and knowledge of political systems to get elected. To denigrate them with such names, or to make snide remarks about, say, Blackburn’s appearance — another pattern I’ve taken note of — cheapens arguments about their policy positions, which are ripe for open disapproval.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Lee and his policies, issues he did not address during his Saturday speech. Granted, rare is the politician who uses an inaugural address to discuss issues of serious concern, and Lee proved no different.
The gist of his speech was how great Tennessee is — indeed, there are many fine things about our state, but most of his policies aren’t among them. While he talked of Tennessee’s accomplishments, including the recruitment of the massive Ford Blue Oval City that is sure to economically transform rural West Tennessee, he barely touched on the many ways in which we need to improve.
Lee referenced the “need to protect children in our custody and our state with a better foster care and adoption process,” which is the mildest way imaginable of addressing a years-long crisis in Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services that has led to hundreds of children — including some with disabilities — sleeping on the floors of state office buildings or stashed in hospitals for want of sufficient staff or foster support.
He didn’t mention his support for one of the strictest abortion bans in the country or that Tennessee ranks as one of the worst states in the nation for maternal health care. Nor did he address why, just days before taking the oath of office for the second time, he and the Tennessee Department of Public Health decided to forgo federal funds used for HIV prevention and treatment.
I have noticed the way Lee treats his wife, First Lady Maria Lee, who was diagnosed with lymphoma last year — the tender way he looks at her — and I noted how he choked up when speaking of her in his Saturday speech. I believe he is a good family man who loves his wife and children dearly.
But that doesn’t make him immune to just criticism of his job performance, nor does it make his critics “toxic” and uncivil.
I urge Gov. Lee, and members of the Tennessee General Assembly, to avail themselves of the full text of Roosevelt’s speech, for there are many facets of it applicable to politics in our state and the “man in the arena’’ paragraph is but one of the 35 comprising the speech.
To them, I point to Roosevelt’s phrase, “Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high.”
In later sections, Roosevelt addresses the ills of a government that refuses to accept proposals to benefit citizens simply because they come from opponents, in which he states that “Probably the best test of true love of liberty in any country is the way in which minorities are treated in that country. Not only should there be complete liberty in matters of religion and opinion, but complete liberty for each man to lead his life as he desires, provided only that in so doing he does not wrong his neighbor.”
Roosevelt, dead for more than a century, remains a beacon for conservatives. But true conservatives will parse all his words on how a government should treat its citizens and reflect that Roosevelt, unlike many Tennessee politicians, wasn’t afraid to take a bit of criticism.
Criticism doesn’t implicitly mean incivility. Elected officials should be viewed through a critical lens, especially by journalists, who are trained to not accept statements from politicians at face value. Lawmakers should expect to have their words and decisions thoroughly pored over and aired: for public officials, this comes with the territory. Don’t want to see your emails in print? Don’t want members of the opposition party calling you out for hypocrisy or your constituents taking issue with your decisions? Don’t run for office.
Criticism is part and parcel of being a public official. Granted, we’ve witnessed, particularly over the last six or seven years, a degradation of thoughtful criticism to more and more ad hominem attacks; name-calling for the sake of name calling.
Holly McCall covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. This column originated at Tennessee Lookout, a member of the non-profit States Newsroom that includes the Florida Phoenix.