Who will be our next profiles in courage?

Kennedy's book, cited more often than read, offers lessons, if we are willing to listen

January 14, 2013|By Richard E. Vatz

One of the great works in politics and political rhetoric is John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. Courage has always been important to the Kennedys, who created a Profile in Courage Award a generation ago, and the awards, although usually liberal in their basis, have included conservatives as well. The 1956 work itself is ideologically pretty balanced.

The book, which I read decades ago and also very recently, concerns political courage, irrespective of political party or philosophy. The topic has always intrigued me, because although I am thought of on my campus as a political conservative, my closest friends have always ranged from liberal to very liberal.

Since I don't believe that liberals or conservatives have a monopoly on truth, I am always fascinated by how close our opinions are on so many — but not all — matters. The Kennedy book, to which everyone refers, but I dare say not too many have actually read, is quite a sophisticated book, and I would argue, a critical book of ethical lessons.

Perhaps we can never be completely sure when a person demonstrates courage. Public officials have legitimate obligations besides those of their consciences, such as their party, their constituents and even special interests, whose needs are not always understood without someone's explaining them to a decision-maker. Sometimes when an elected official flouts the views of his party and constituents, it is merely because the position holds the prospect for satisfying a larger group of constituents down the road.

A major responsibility of an elected official is to represent the views of constituents, but, as Profiles in Courage points out, we are both United States citizens and state citizens, and a party which excludes any and all independent ideas or insurgent members destroys democracy in its inflexibility. Overly rigid ideology destroys the very basis of freedom which makes our country thrive. Compromise, writes Kennedy, does not mean cowardice.

President Kennedy wrote that courage is evident when senators, for example, cast aside concerns relating to risks to their careers, unpopularity of their actions, and defamation of their characters in honor of a principle that they think is right. Yet, to be courageous in Kennedy's definition doesn't require that you agree with him.

Profiles in Courage includes examples of senators exhibiting courage by taking positions that JFK thought were simply wrong. In fact Kennedy explicitly stresses that "Courageous politicians and the principles for which they fight [are] not always right." To demonstrate this, his profiles in courage includes the abolitionist Daniel Webster who, to maintain the Union, supported the Compromise of 1850's Fugitive Slave Act, which was odious to his fellow statesmen of Massachusetts and presumably to Kennedy in retrospect.

In the same volume is included Thomas Hart Benton, a senator from the slave state of Missouri, who opposed slavery and subsequently lost office after office in his political career, and Texas' Sam Houston , a Southerner, a slaveholder, who supported the Union, denounced secession at a secessionist convention, and suffered mightily politically for such heresy.

Perhaps the most famous profile in courage was Kansas' Edmund G. Ross, whose Republican bona fides were indisputably engaged in what a Kennedy historian calls "the most heroic act in American history." He voted against impeachment of Andrew Johnson, leading him to lose friendships, positions, and fortune to support the principle that the United States cannot be a "partisan Congressional Authority." He was vilified, and his career was effectively ended.

Identifying acts of courage is easier than identifying those who are consistently courageous, as many of the senators whom Kennedy cites were only sometimes courageous. One cannot be courageous all the time — you have to pick your spots.

What about the lack of courage? John Fitzgerald Kennedy not only saw the potential good that comes from the courageous individual, but he also saw the bad and even tragic consequences that emanate from a distinct lack of courage. Even while an undergraduate at Harvard he wrote a thesis on the weakness of United States and British political leaders who would not courageously oppose public resistance to rearming in the face of German threats, leading to his work, "Why England Slept."

Just as Profiles in Courage describes the honorable actions of politicians willing to lose it all to advance a great principle or to confront a long-term problem, the lessons of those who have not been courageous are equally compelling.

A politician who lacks courage has eminent dependability — he or she never surprises anyone with his or her position. It is the politician, Kennedy says, who is motivated wholly by "the trappings of office" and/or future office.

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