The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a Ken Burns documentary film that aired last month chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, members of the influential family who shaped much of 20th century American politics. One of Richard Nixon’s most admired political figures of the 20th century, perhaps more so than the colossal icon Winston Churchill, was Theodore Roosevelt. A man who embraced the strenuous life, T.R. thrived living life in pursuit of excellence in citizenship. He believed in the fundamental teaching wrought from the stern strife of living in the arena, and acknowledged the weakness of feigned superiority from those who observed the realities of life from the stands. Very much like T.R., Richard Nixon chose a life in the arena and aspired for excellence even if it meant enduring defeat, because it also meant rising to the call of duty.
Click here to view a trailer of the Ken Burns film.
An excerpt from T.R.’s speech Citizenship in a Republic appears on the page before Richard Nixon’s post-presidential memoir on victory, defeat and renewal, In the Arena, begins:
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 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 not 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 triumphs 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 knows neither victory nor defeat.
It is a quote that embodies the story of RN’s life–one of perseverance against seemingly insurmountable defeats. A man who could have easily chosen to retire from political life following a gut-blowing gubernatorial defeat in 1962 and news agencies deeming it his political obituary, but found a way to return to political prominence that culminated in his ascension to the White House. A man who, despite being the only President in the history of our nation to resign the post, rose from his political vestiges to succeed in his duty as perhaps one of the most influential elder statesman.
Perhaps RN held a conviction, despite battling the emotions surrounding his decision to resign, that this was yet another beginning. In his farewell remarks to White House staff on his final day as President, RN turned to the moving tribute that TR wrote for his wife following her sudden passing. Earlier on the same day, he had learned that his mother died. Only in his twenties, TR believed that the light of his life had gone out:
He said, ‘She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden, loving, tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.’
That was T.R. in his twenties. He thought the light had gone from his life forever — but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country, always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man.
Richard Nixon himself aspired to be that kind of man. For it appeared that his light had gone out once the decision was made to resign. But RN went on, because in life, defeats are always only a beginning.