CREDIT: Dinwiddie, William, photographer. Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the top of the hill which they captured, Battle of San Juan, 1898. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-7626 DLC
You know the story of the “Rough Riders?” It was the name given to an all volunteer Calvary Regiment organized by Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War in 1898. It was a motley group, made up of cowboys, Native Americans, college boys, and wealthy men, but despite their divergent backgrounds, “they could ride and shoot and were in shape, and thus could be ready for war with little training.” The regiment assembled in Texas and then set out for Cuba. Colonel Roosevelt, on horseback, led
“the Rough Riders and elements of the Ninth and Tenth Regiments of regulars, African-American “buffalo soldiers,” and other units up Kettle Hill. After that hill was captured, TR, now on foot, led a second charge up the San Juan Heights. This was what TR called his “crowded hour,” his great moment.”
I have always loved the picture of Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders posing on top of a hill in San Juan Heights. They weren’t professional military men, though no doubt there were some veterans sprinkled among the group. Although all the men are wearing their uniforms of dark shirts, high boots and hats, their volunteer status shines through by the way their hats are cocked to the side, and shirts carelessly buttoned. There’s something about the way the men are posing that bleeds defiance. You can tell by the way they stand that they don’t so much as walk, but as Mark Twain wrote, “move with a dignified swagger.” This is definitely not a graduation picture from West Point.
I thought of this picture as I was talking to a friend this morning about an exciting political moment for us exactly 4 years ago. I had faded in and out of the Republican primary race because I was fairly agnostic toward the candidates, and the fireworks going off on the Democrat side between Team Hillary and Team Obama were far more entertaining to watch. So, when the presumptive GOP Presidential nominee announced his selection of his running mate, I wasn’t watching. I was taking my time getting ready for class. Then my mother called. She told me that John McCain had picked a woman as his VP choice. I stabbed at it half-heartedly, “Kay Bailey Hutchison?” “No, her name is Sarah and she’s from Alaska. Turn it on.” For the next twenty minutes, I stood and listened to a voice speak confident, passionate and defiant words that I had never really heard before, and I liked them.
I missed my class that afternoon.
In the intervening years between that afternoon and today, I’ve had the chance to do more than just like the words of Gov. Sarah Palin. I’ve had the privilege of joining others who also liked her words and working alongside them, turn those words into tangible results. We found each other in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, California and many other states. We worked booths at county fairs, passed out flyers and signed up volunteers at rallies and phone banked weekends leading up to election day. Few had experience in politics before and fewer still had worked on campaigns. We’re parents, college students, men, women, straight, gay, black, white, professionals and stay at home moms. We’re a motley group. We’re volunteers. We’re Rough Riders.
We take time out of our busy lives and use up precious weekends to help candidates who share our principles and commitment to reform such a shamefully broken government. In Wisconsin, the grassroots there withstood tremendous pressure to abandon their principles and cede to the loud voices of graft and fiscal insanity. In Texas, the grassroots dug deep and held their line to beat back overwhelming odds to send a conservative candidate on his way to represent us in Washington. Many times, we faced fierce blow back from a party we’ve had to ride along with. It’s tough and at many times disheartening. But we push forward anyway because that’s what Rough Riders do. None more so than Gov. Sarah Palin.
She showed up in Wisconsin at a time when the air was ringing with leftist chants and threats. Stood at Jan Brewer’s side when others couldn’t be found. Defended the Tea Party when everyone else abandoned them. She sided with Ted Cruz when it seemed fruitless to do so. I’ve had the awesome honor of seeing up close her work in the trenches with the grassroots. Saw her speak with nearly every resident of Pella, Iowa. Watched her walk the grounds of the Iowa State Fair and shake any hand offered to her and graciously pose with folks as they nervously and excitedly fumbled with their cameras. Heard stories of her responding to letters written by folks who shared their stories of struggle and faith with her. And she does this all within the full gaze of the angry faces of those on the left and right who belittle these efforts and denigrate her character. If you’re looking for inspiration to keep charging up these daunting hills we face, you won’t have to look hard. She’s the first one up the hill.
There are a lot of hills in front of us and it’s going to take many battles to get to our “crowded hour,” but the elections of 2010 were a good start. The elections of 2012 are an important continuation. As the events at the RNC showed yesterday, this fight isn’t going to be pretty or fair. That’s the terrain, so let’s not fight it, but adapt to it. We’ll do it with cocked hats, rumpled shirts and defiant smiles. Let us not walk, but “move with a dignified swagger,” and know that unlike the fuzzy motives of the war fought by the original Rough Riders, our motive is honorable and purposeful. Reform our financial and political house so that future generations don’t have to fight these battles we face now. I’m heartened that such a figure like Gov. Sarah Palin is out there on the field with us, spurring us on. It’s good company to be in.
See you all out in the trenches, Rough Riders.