The 2012 Teddy Awards for Political Courage

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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.

Election years are not often fertile ground for the distribution of Teddy Awards—my annual homage to political courage, named after Theodore Roosevelt, whose quote above provides the name for this column. This election was no exception. In fact, I should probably award a reverse Teddy—perhaps we can call it a Warren G. Harding—to Mitt Romney, who conducted one of the least courageous, most mendacious presidential campaigns I’ve ever witnessed. But ’tis the season to be charitable, so I’ll award a Teddy instead to former governor Jeb Bush, who said in a June speech that neither his father George H.W. Bush nor Ronald Reagan, “based on [their] record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground” with Democrats, would have been very comfortable in today’s Republican Party. Young Bush has been smart and accommodating, and conservative, on issues like education, poverty and immigration. I suspect he has a future in politics. So this Teddy is both for honesty rendered this year and the promise of courage to come in reforming his party.

Bush the Elder’s stature as President grows with every passing year. He was the finest foreign policy President I’ve ever covered and a man who defied his party on tax increases while imposing budget restrictions on the Democrats. He passed the Americans with Disabilities Act and a successful cap-and-trade regime for the sulfur dioxide that caused acid rain. He deserves a retrospective Teddy, as does his old primary opponent Bob Dole, who was wheeled onto the Senate floor to lobby in December for passage of a U.N. treaty that would extend the values in our Disabilities Act to the rest of the world. Today’s disgraceful Republicans voted it down. Both Bush and Dole were in and out of hospitals toward the end of this year. I don’t know how much longer we’ll have them around, but these men are giants; I feel privileged to have watched them work.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar is another giant who is leaving politics this year, a victim of a Tea Party challenge. He gets a lifetime achievement Teddy for his work on controlling nuclear arms and because he voted for the U.N. treaty mentioned above.

Senator Joe Lieberman, who is also leaving the Senate this year, gets a Teddy for disassociating himself from the squalid campaign that his two amigos Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham conducted against U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice—and their more general effort to transform the tragedy that took place at our Benghazi consulate on Sept. 11 into a scandal. McCain and Graham have won Teddys in the past; they rate Hardings this year.

Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the Benghazi assault, deserves to be recognized because he represented the best in American diplomacy, a man who insisted on being out with the people in dangerous places, learning from them and demonstrating, by his grace and courage, what America is all about. His Teddy also honors those diplomats who serve, and sometimes sacrifice, in difficult posts around the world—especially those who run provincial reconstruction teams in war zones. I should also mention their boss, Hillary Clinton, who has represented us brilliantly and relentlessly during the past four years, a Secretary of State who made herself more accessible overseas than any of her predecessors, conducting endless town meetings. Clinton helped negotiate the Gaza cease-fire this year, but her unique combination of intelligence, toughness and often startling humanity has always been a wonderful advertisement for the U.S.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got a lot of the headlines when Hurricane Sandy struck, but the Teddy goes to his neighbor, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has provided real leadership under pressure—not just after the storm but also in taking on his fellow Democrats in Albany, who are among the most troglodytic and reactionary hacks festering in any state legislature in the country.

Finally, President Barack Obama did not run an inspiring campaign this year. But he has been a consistent force for sanity in Washington, and now, after the Newtown massacre, he needs to bind our wounds and lead more effectively. Good luck, Mr. President. To the victor belongs the Teddy.

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