Who will be our next profiles in courage?

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.

We all know such politicians. When adding up votes on a party-line vote, they're predictably there — always.

What would courage look like in the days of tax and budget discussions? It might include politicians on the right who recognize that increased taxes on those who earn a score of millions could contribute a bit more while income disparity increases, and it would include politicians on the left who accept the loss of constituent support in significantly diluting the ever-increasing entitlements of the Nanny State.

Where was anyone who would speak out against the earmarks, pork and extenders in the latest national budget agreement? To do so would have been to demand unpopular sacrifices, but that is what courage is all about.


There is little immediate reward for political courage. Kennedy points out quite correctly that there is no difficulty in claiming that ethical, courageous people are in fact unethical. Of the eight senators whose courage was prominently cited in Profiles, several of them were falsely claimed to be habitual liars and thieves.

So what is the reward for being courageous? Sometimes it is to be deemed right in the history of your times, but as I have already noted, one can be courageous and wrong. Also, whether history recognizes a decision maker's courage, as Richard Nixon noted in response to Henry Kissinger's assurance that history would treat him kinder than his contemporaries, "depends on who writes the history."

Sometimes being courageous is its own reward and its only reward.

And it's not always clear what constitutes bravery, as when Rep. Paul Ryan's budget was first nationally debated in 2011. Many Democrats called it courageous because it put conservative rhetoric about lower taxes and smaller government into specifics, which themselves might prove unpopular. Time's Michael Grunwald disagreed, noting that "Ryan is a conservative Republican committee chairman in a conservative Republican caucus. ... I do question whether it was really courageous for him to propose huge tax cuts for the rich, squeeze health care for the poor, and promise that nobody over 55 — the heart of the conservative Republican base — will have to make any sacrifices."

So, if we use the general category of risks to one's career in supporting a non-consensual principle, can we agree that in addition to the examples in Profiles in Courage that President Nixon's opening to China, Lyndon Johnson's fighting for minority voting rights and other clear examples of surprising, unpopular but courageous initiatives deserve our notice?

Not everyone has the opportunity to be as indisputably courageous as Winston Churchill, who in 1940 refused to appease the Nazi regime despite many of those around him getting in line to do so, and who once said, "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others."


Michael Beschloss, eminent presidential historian reflects on great presidential courage in his book, Presidential Courage, citing several acts of such, including Harry Truman's support of Israel, despite the anti-Semitism of many of his advisers.


Where do our current leaders land on the courage criterion? Will they distinguish themselves by recognizing the critical need for significant compromise on the deficit/debt time bomb? Will they recognize, as one of my colleagues puts it, that outrage about the Newtown school shootings doesn't justify policies that cannot possible stop or minimize such outrages? Will they insist on democratic reform in the Middle East, where the United States' influence is perennially in danger of losing relevance in favor of temporary harmony?

It is not easy to find examples — particularly contemporary ones — in which we can all agree what constitutes courageous politics. But I think it is indisputable that politicians who never, ever challenge their constituents or parties are the exemplars of non-courageous non-leaders who care only about themselves and not the good of their country or state.

Courageous politicians are those who in future years are cited as the critical and surprising vote. Non-courageous politicians are never remembered because, as when two people are absolutely identical in their views on all issues, at least one of them has stopped thinking.

Richard E. Vatz, a professor at Towson University in Maryland, has written on rhetoric and politics for decades, and he is author of "The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion" (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013). His email is rvatz@towson.edu. This essay is adapted from an address to the Maryland Economic Development Association.

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