Theodore Roosevelt said that in 1910. I named this column In the Arena out of admiration for T.R., but also as a constant reminder to myself not to be unduly cynical about the men and women who do our public work. And so I try to give credit where it's due. I try to avoid criticism that is crude or mocking. But there's no getting around the reality of column writing: I am "the critic," and it is all too easy to dwell on those who don't strive valiantly, spend themselves for a worthy cause or dare greatly. At year's end, however, and especially at the end of a year as horrible as this one, it is appropriate to pay homage to those who have taken risky stands on principle, even when I have disagreed with them.
I've disagreed plenty with our President, George W. Bush, but he was the first person who came to mind when I reread the Roosevelt quote. He has had a difficult year. And yet I can't forget Dr. Kamal Labwani, a Syrian dissident I met in Damascus last spring, just after he was released from prison. He told me how much Bush's words about the importance of freedom and democracyand the mistake the U.S. had made by supporting repressive regimes in the regionhad meant to him. Later in the year, as Labwani was about to be arrested again, he sent me, and others, an e-mail that began, "The security forces have surrounded our house ..." He was released once more and visited Washington, where he was greeted at the White House. When he returned home, he was arrested a third time. President Bush has mentioned the outrageous treatment of Labwani in several speeches and White House statements. Thank you for that, Mr. President, and thanks for standing with human-rights activists throughout the worldalthough your support for such courageous souls as Kamal Labwani will have even more impact now that you have renounced the use of torture, once and for all.
As an opponent of the death penalty, I disagreed with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to allow the execution of Stanley (Tookie) Williams, the former leader of the Crips street gang. But the Governor should be congratulated for his efforts to reform California politics and public education in a series of referendums this year, especially his proposal to delay tenure for public schoolteachers from two years to five years. This modest change aroused the ire of their unions, which spent millions on television advertising to defeat it. Most politicians lack the courage to challenge the unions, and the failure of Schwarzenegger's referendum won't encourage many others to try. But the reform of public education depends on a nationwide effort to curb the power of the unions on tenure, length of school day, length of school year, merit pay and a host of other workplace issues. Teachers should be paid more and control the rules of engagement less. Thanks, Ahhnold, for taking them on.
Senator John McCain was another person the Roosevelt quote brought to mindbut his political courage is well known. I would rather celebrate a close McCain ally, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who as a former military judge has spoken out against torture with great authority. Graham also offered the best plan to address the nation's Social Security dilemma. He proposed offering limited private accounts and raising the revenue to make the system solvent. And he joined the so-called Gang of 14, the bipartisan group that prevented a Senate meltdown over the issue of judicial filibusters. Thanks, Senator, for a great yearand here's to a more active role for the 14 moderates on other issues in the future.
Speaking of judicial nominees, Senator Barack Obama deserves notice for his criticism of Democratic advocacy groups that opposed the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court in their usual vituperative fashioneven though Obama himself opposed the nomination. "Whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose," he wrote to the puerile liberal Daily Kos blog. Thanks, Senator, for taking a stand in the service of civility.
Finally, I had the privilege this year of spending some time with the men and women who are really in the arena, the members of our armed forces. Their sacrifices, their discipline, their devotion to the mission in Iraqdespite many personal doubts they shared with meis an inspiration. We are honored by their service.