Celebs Using TR's Quote are Missing the PointRoundup
tags: Theodore Roosevelt, speeches, Quotations
Michael Patrick Cullinane is professor of U.S. history and the Lowman Walton Chair of Theodore Roosevelt studies at Dickinson State University and the Public Historian for the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
An old Theodore Roosevelt quote has become an unlikely pop culture phenomenon. Pop star Miley Cyrus has it tattooed on her arm. Basketball legend LeBron James emblazons an adaptation of it (“Man in the Arena”) on his sneakers before big games. Cadillac made a paraphrase of it (“Dare Greatly”) the basis for its advertising campaigns.
The 1910 speech they reference was a memorable one. “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,” Roosevelt said. The quote concludes, “If he fails, at least [he] fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It’s easy to see why sports superstars like it. These powerful words contain two doctrines essential to sporting success.
First, victory requires energy. Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” strives, works and toils. Throughout his lifetime, the former president venerated “the man who embodies victorious effort.”
Second, the speech celebrates one’s ability to cast off failure, to develop resilience and rebound from shortcomings. In the sports world, the capacity to forget a bad game or performance makes an athlete stronger. A Tom Brady career retrospective documentary series was called “Man in the Arena” and referred to Roosevelt’s speech as a guiding principle — to get back out there and try again.
Yet, the speech rarely elicits careful reading. Most of the time we refer to it as the “man in the arena” speech. Roosevelt called it “Citizenship in a Republic,” and the short passage we know so well has overshadowed his broader point about the need for collective responsibility in a democracy. In today’s political milieu, the speech has a profound relevance.
Roosevelt did not advocate individualism. Whether on the field of play or in the political arena, he acknowledged that a single person had tremendous power and potential but that any individual effort paled in comparison to the power of a group of like-minded people. “I am a strong individualist by personal habit,” he admitted, but he added: “It is a mere matter of common sense to recognize that the State, the community, the citizens acting together, can do a number of things better than if they were left to individual action.”
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