The Woman In the Arena

Kamala Harris has been criticized for her time as a prosecutor at the city, county, and state level. Some of the charges have been absurd, like dismissing her candidacy because she was a “cop.” But some of them have been questions she needs to answer, like the ones posed by a young man at a CNN town hall event.

Harris’s response reminded me of that famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt. I’m going to take the liberty of updating it for the 21st century because Kamala Harris has demonstrated that she is a woman in the arena.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman 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 great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

As we evaluate candidates, keeping that kind of thing in mind isn’t just important when it comes to Harris. Gus captured the bigger picture.

To the extent that a candidate has been “in the arena,” they are going to have made mistakes. That is a given. The real issue is whether they learned from them. When I wrote about how I will evaluate the candidates, I included this quote about Barack Obama from Melissa Harris-Perry.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.

By way of contrast, the one good thing that might come from Donald Trump’s time in the Oval Office is that we could learn to identify what we don’t want in a president. Someone who is not only ignorant, but refuses to correct his shortcomings, while simply doubling down on his mistakes, has culminated in a disaster.

Given how our political campaigns are conducted, evaluating someone’s ability to learn is difficult because a candidate who admits that they made a mistake will be pilloried by both the media and their opponent(s), leaving them extremely vulnerable. So candidates pretend to be perfect and we begin to expect that, only to be shielded from one of the most important things we need to evaluate.

My bottom line is that I prefer a president who has spent time “in the arena” rather than one who has stood by at a safe distance in order to protect their image. Better yet is someone who has known the triumph of high achievement, which means that they have alsoĀ failed while daring greatly.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.