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, 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 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 fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.Theodore Roosevelt
Four men – four Presidents – honored in granite. Men of their times, with all of the imperfections of those times, but whose deeds transcended their eras and shaped our futures.
The first President, always the one asked to lead: the Continental army, the Constitutional Convention, the nation as first President. The indispensable man for the birth of our nation. And yet a slave owner, and a sometimes scheming land developer.
The third President; his words have gone down in history as the definition of freedom and human rights. Sparked both the American and French Revolutions. And yet a slave owner who recognized slavery’s inhumanity but continued to own slaves, and a sort of moral coward who never battled his opponents head-on, always relying on proxies.
The 26th President; shaped the modern Presidency. The first conservationist President, won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese war, the trust-buster always on the side of the common man. And yet he preached eugenics, to stop “degenerates” from breeding.
The sixteenth President; saved the Union in its darkest hour, freed the slaves, and wrote the greatest memorial to those who have fallen in war in the English language. And yet he was clinically depressed and married into a family of slaveholders.
In recent years, their reputations have come under attack: statues removed, their names expunged from public buildings, their lives dissected and their flaws magnified. And yet they accomplished so much.
Today we here in the US honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy. In small towns across the country (and a few – too few! – large cities), there will be parades and other festivities to remember them. But too often we forget that these fallen heroes were also flawed, just as the four on Mt Rushmore were. Some were racists, some were thieves, some were rapists – the litany of their flaws goes on. As humans, our common lot is imperfection. And yet because of what these flawed men and women did, we can celebrate with family and friends – backyard barbecues, going to the beach, taking in a ballgame, using the holiday to reconnect.
The lesson for me is that though we are all flawed – even the greatest of us – we can all accomplish great things, working together. Even as those we honor today achieved so much for us. But to honor them we must step into life’s arena as they did. We must accept that we are all flawed, but overlook the flaws in others so that – together – we dare greatly to build a better life for all.