Profiles in Courage,
by John F. Kennedy
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OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW:
This book was written by John F. Kennedy while he was a Senator, and published in 1955. Most Americans today are aware of this book by its title and are aware that Kennedy wrote it, but almost none have read it. And that's a shame, because it's a very readable book, and still has relevance today.
The book has a straightforward structure: Eight chapters about eight members of the US Senate, telling the story of how each one made a courageous decision. "Courage" is carefully defined in this context to mean "taking an action on principle, knowing that it will likely cost re-election." Generally, the action in question went against the Senator's party, or against the Senator's constituency, or both. In some cases, the Senator recovered from the negative consequences of the decision; in some they never recovered (such as the ones in the list below whom you've never heard of!).
This book is more of a history book than a political book. But it is a very accessible history book -- so much so that history teachers should require reading it for understanding the segments of US history that it covers. The historical aspects provide the context for the courageous decision: JFK explains the context prior to the key decision; the political consequences of the decision; and the later career results of the decision. The list of Senators and topics follow; included are the state and party that the Senator had the courage to oppose, and the year of the courageous decision:
This book is still relevant today because of the current low regard for the US Senate, which is usually tied in with complaints of "hyper-partisanship" and/or catering to special interest groups. That is the core concept of JFK's book: Courage means overcoming partisanship, and also means not bowing to any special interest, and instead voting one's conscience. Senators always have to vote based on whether an issue should be decided as a representative of the people (i.e., voting in accordance with the majority in one's state), or alternatively as a matter of conscience. When the matter of conscience prevails in a situation where one's re-election is clearly at stake, that becomes a "profile in courage."
- 1804: Sen. John Quincy Adams (Massachusetts Federalist): The only member of his party to support the Louisiana Purchase, on grounds that it was good for America despite being bad for New England commerce.
- 1850: Sen. Daniel Webster (Massachusetts Whig): Supported the Great Compromise on slavery (New England and the Whigs were for abolition) , which cost him any chance at the presidency but which postponed the Civil War by a decade.
- 1850: Sen. Thomas Benton (Missouri Democrat): Opposed Texas annexation.
- 1854: Sen. Sam Houston (Texas Democrat): Opposed westward expansion of slave states.
- 1868: Sen. Edmund G. Ross (Kansas Republican): The deciding vote against the conviction of President Andrew Johnson after he was impeached on political charges; Ross voted No to preserve the power of the presidency.
- 1878: Sen. Lucius Lamar (Mississippi Democrat): Voted against "free silver," a means of reducing the cost of Civil War reparations for the former Confederacy.
- 1910: Sen. George Norris (Nebraska Republican): Pushed limitations on power of the Speaker of the House of his own party.
- 1946: Sen. Robert A. Taft (Ohio Republican): The son of President Taft, and the likely nominee for president in 1948, Sen. Taft spoke out against the Nuremberg Tribunals, an which hanged several Nazis as war criminals, because the international law violated the ex post facto clause of the US Constitution.
JFK doesn't say that each act of courage was successful, nor even that each act of courage was right. For example, on the most recent one above, I thought, "Why should Taft apply US law to an international tribunal? Nuremberg wasn't run under the US Constitution at all." JFK agreed in his summary: "Taft, it is argued, was motivated more by blind isolationism than Constitutional principles." (p. 240). And JFK doesn't say at all that those profiled are saints because of their courageous act: on the contrary, he calls Adams "an irritating upstart;" and Webster "the businessmen's beneficiary," for example. What JFK does say is that all citizens can exhibit courage of conscience in daily life, like these Senators did in national life (p. 245).
This book inspired books relevant to three ongoing political careers: Profiles In Character, by Gov. Jeb Bush, and Profiles In Courage for Our Time, by Caroline Kennedy (JFK's daughter), and Why Courage Matters and Hard Call, by Sen. John McCain. The timing of this book's publication (1955, when JFK was in the early planning stages of presidential aspirations) set the stage for the 1960 election: JFK would run on a theme that, as president, he would make courageous decisions that benefited America even if they bucked the Democratic Party (while Richard Nixon, who was Vice President in 1955, would run on a theme of willingness to fight against Communism). Jeb Bush's corresponding book title indicates that, as president, he would make decisions based on character, rather than courage, as the underlying theme -- we'll see come 2016!
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, May 2013
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The above quotations are from Profiles in Courage,
by John F. Kennedy.
Books by and about Cabinet Members:
- Between Worlds, by Gov. Bill Richardson, Secretary of Commerce-designee
- Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis, by Sen. Tom Daschle, Secretary of Health & Human Services-designee
- Dreams from My Father:, by Sen. Barack Obama, President-elect
- It Takes A Village, by Sen. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State-designee
- Leading by Example, by Gov. Bill Richardson, Secretary of Commerce-designee
- Like No Other Time: The Two Years That Changed America, by Sen. Tom Daschle, Secretary of Health & Human Services-designee
- Living History, by Sen. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State-designee
- Profiles In Courage, by John F. Kennedy
- Profiles In Courage For Our Time, by Caroline Kennedy, including chapter on Rep. Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor-designee
- Promises to Keep, by Sen. Joe Biden, Vice President-elect
- The Audacity of Hope, by Sen. Barack Obama, President-elect
- No Higher Honor, by Condoleezza Rice (2011)
- My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me, by Condoleezza Rice (2012)
- The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America, by Rahm Emanuel
- The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless, by Naftali Bendavid; profiling Rep. Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff
- For the Record, by Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan