On Courage

John Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book (1956) “Profiles in Courage” is worth two readings, for it is as inspirational and timely today as when it was published.  Elegantly written by then-Senator Kennedy while he was convalescing from serious back surgery (I know, I know, everyone says Ted Sorensen actually wrote it; no matter), the book tells the story of nine Senators who exhibited political courage that, in their day and now, was exceedingly rare. Each Senator defied his party, and sometimes long-held convictions, to do what he thought was right at the time, even if widely unpopular. Some Senators won universal acclaim and re-election, others were disdained by the electorate and tossed from office at the first opportunity.

Bear in mind that until 1913, Senators were not elected by popular vote but were appointed by each state legislature. Thus the Senate was perceived more as a House of Lords than directly reflective of the people’s will, and many have argued – rightly so – that the caliber of Senator was much higher before he had to seek election like lesser politicians. (Kennedy himself almost concedes as much.) Most of the “courageous” Senators were then offending not their political bases – the citizens – but the small cadre of voters in the respective legislatures. And yet each acted in accordance with their consciences in defiance of the perceived wisdom and judgment of the time, and even when Kennedy admits that they might have been wrong (each decision was either appropriately liberal or too liberal) the courage they displayed was itself admirable.

Several Senators were caught in the maelstrom of the slavery debate – Daniel Webster, eloquent abolitionist acceding to the continuation of the Fugitive Slave Laws; Thomas Hart Benton, a staunch Southerner, agreeing to the non-extension of slavery to new states and territories – both in order to ensure the passing of the Compromise of 1850 to avert secession and civil war, and both vilified for it. Neither was a shrinking violent. Webster was one of the great orators of all time (without speechwriter or teleprompter), mesmerizing the audience with a speech on this occasion that schoolchildren were taught for decades and knowing he would be denounced by his strongest supporters. Benton – well, Benton can speak for himself. To another Senator:  “I never quarrel, sir. But sometimes I fight, sir; and whenever I fight, sir, a funeral follows, sir.”

Edmund Ross of Kansas – a bitter foe of President Andrew Johnson – nevertheless cast the decisive vote (against the will of his state and his own expressed determination to rid the country of that “traitor” to the South) that acquitted Johnson in his impeachment trial, simply because Ross felt the evidence to convict was insufficient. He was threatened (telegram from 1000 Kansans: “Kansas has heard the evidence and demands the conviction of the President;” Ross’ reply: “I do not recognize your right to demand that I vote either for or against conviction. I have taken an oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, and trust that I shall have the courage to vote according to the dictates of my judgment and for the highest good of the country.”) He was offered a bribe of $20,000. (“There is a bushel of money! How much does the damned scoundrel want ?”) He voted “not guilty.” Friends offered him their pistols so he could shoot himself. He saved the Presidency, and perhaps the nation still torn by the aftermath of the Civil War, but was rejected for re-election and sentenced to a life of near-poverty.

Similarly, Mississippi’s Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar voted to accept the Commission Report that awarded the disputed presidential election of 1876 to Rutherford Hayes – anathema to the South. He too was subsequently reviled, as was George Norris, Republican of Nebraska, who voted against America’s entry into World War I, and Robert Taft (who died just a few years before the book was published), Mr. Republican of Ohio, who sabotaged his own presidential ambitions by opposing the Nuremberg Trials as ex post facto justice and a perversion of American ideals.

The common denominators were that they followed their consciences, an inner sense of right and wrong that transcended both party and crass political considerations, and displayed the sort of audacity that is both uncommon and unexpected today.

Kennedy wrote (again, it was 1955!): “Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship  is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.” It is a point well taken, exacerbated today because every politician’s every statement, musing, thought, decision or promise is recorded for all eternity, to be played over and over again by the mass media if he deviates one iota. He advocates what has become exceedingly rare today – the elected official who does not reflect public opinion in every vote but sees himself as elected by the people to vote his conscience and exercise his judgment, not theirs. But even Kennedy admits that might easily be a formula for electoral defeat – in which case what has the person really accomplished ? He might have been able to make a greater difference, even better serve the people, if he compromised on some issues in order to attain his cherished objectives.

Therein lies the irony of his theme as it relates to today’s politics. The lament of the Obama White House and the Democrat establishment is that the Republicans “refuse to compromise.” I.e., the Republicans  – in large part, although not completely and not all of them sincerely – refuse to continue being the “tax collectors for the welfare state” (as Newt Gingrich – a name back in the news – once famously derided the Bob Dole Republicans). There has always been an expectation in Washington that when all the shouting and screaming stopped and all the name-calling subsided, both parties would come to their “senses” and raise taxes and distribute the burgeoning government pie to their favored constituencies.

But that “courage to compromise” is really cowardice, as well as a classic example of failed politicians who do not act in the public interest but simply see the levers of government as their ticket to re-election, power and wealth. The Tea Party has tried to end that, to the consternation of official Washington; whether they will succeed or fail (i.e., be corrupted) remains to be seen. It is easy for Republicans to get sucked in to the mindset that the system is broken, so they might as well exploit it for their own purposes – more spending, earmarks, special deals, insider trades, etc. Courage for the Republican is to hold firm, steadfastly refuse to increase taxes or spending, and shrink government. (Americans seem to love “big government,” especially when someone else – the rich! – are paying for it.) But true courage would be a Democrat flouting his party, and voting to decrease spending, limit government’s power, and allow people to exercise personal responsibility over their own lives. That would be courageous, but electorally foolhardy as the Democrat base essentially feeds off the government trough.
For sure, courage comes in many forms and can be found (or missed) in many professions. There are many rabbis who keep silent in the face of adversity, challenges, or assaults on Torah, Israel or the Jewish people simply because it is convenient to remain silent – who will never act until they see who else is acting. They are not leaders in any sense. Kennedy often quoted Dante: “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality,” or, I suppose, just vote “present” rather than commit themselves.

Conversely, Andrew Jackson was fond of saying, “One man with courage makes a majority.” It is no shame to be a minority in a worthy cause; no human being was ever in a smaller minority that our father Avraham.

But the courageous man is himself a majority, and such can and should be found in every person, every profession and every walk of life, and among good people everywhere.

3 responses to “On Courage

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  2. Rabbi David Ozery, December 2011:
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