The politics and rhetoric of courage.
ONE OF THE GREAT works in politics and political rhetoric is John E Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, a book that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for "Biography or Autobiography." JFK himself showed courage in his bravery in World War II and his taking of responsibility for foreign policy failures in his own Administration. Courage always has been important to the Kennedys, who created the Profile in Courage Award in 1989, which, although usually liberal in its basis, has included conservatives among its recipients.
The book, which I first read decades ago and reread recently, concerns political courage irrespective of political party or philosophy. The topic always has intrigued me because, although I am thought of on my campus as a political conservative, my closest friends consistently have ranged from liberal to very liberal. Since I do not believe that liberals (or progressives) or even conservatives have a monopoly on truth, I am fascinated by how close our opinions are on so many--but not all--matters. It is no coincidence, to be sure, that the author of Profiles, then-Sen. Kennedy (D.-Mass.), was not a liberal, as that term often is conceived. The phrase for which he is most remembered, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" reflects a classic conservative position--that people should not be supplicants to the government, that to do so douses initiative and creates dependency. Democrat Caroline Kennedy calls that phrase her father's preeminent "Inaugural Challenge."
However, let us get back to the matter of courage in political disagreement. The Kennedy book, to which everyone refers--but dare say not too many actually have read--is quite sophisticated and, I would argue, a critical piece on ethical lessons. Perhaps we never can be 100% sure when a person demonstrates courage. Even a courageous public official has obligations, which means that he or she cannot always vote his or her conscience. There are legitimate considerations that have to be weighed, such as one's party, constituents, and even special interests-these needs are not always understood without someone explaining them to a decisionmaker. Sometimes, when an elected official flouts the views of his party and constituents, it merely is because the position holds the prospect for satisfying a larger group of constituents down the road.
So, yes, a major responsibility of an elected official is to represent the views of constituents but, as Profiles points out, we are U.S. and state citizens, too, and a party that excludes any and all independent ideas or insurgent members destroys democracy in its inflexibility. Compromise, writes Kennedy, does not mean cowardice.
On the issue of national and local politics and courage, the Kennedy--and perhaps I should say Kennedy-Ted Sorenson---work recognizes the difficulty in ascertaining when a political decisionmaker is courageous. Kennedy wrote that courage is evident when senators, for example, cast aside concerns relating to risks to their careers, the 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 does not require that you agree with him.
Profiles in Courage includes examples of senators exhibiting the trait by taking positions that JFK simply thought were wrong or incorrect. In fact, Kennedy explicitly stresses that "Courageous politicians and the principles for which they fight [are] not always right." To demonstrate this, his profiles include the antislavery Daniel Webster, who, to maintain the Union, supported the compromise of 1850's proviso of the 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 Democratic 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 Southern slaveholder who supported the Union, denounced secession at a secessionist convention, and suffered mightily politically for such heresy.
Perhaps the most famous show of courage came from Kansas' Edmund G. Ross, whose Republican bona tides indisputably were engaged in what a Kennedy historian calls "the most heroic act in American history." He voted against conviction in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, leading him to lose friendships, positions, and fortune to support the principle that the U.S. cannot be a "partisan Congressional Authority." He was thoroughly vilified, although later became governor of the New Mexico Territory.
Identifying acts of courage is easier than identifying those who consistently are courageous, as many of the senators whom Kennedy cites were courageous only sometimes. One cannot be courageous all of the time--you have to pick your spots.
What about the lack of courage? Kennedy not only saw the potential good that comes from the courageous individual, but the bad and even tragic consequences that emanate from a distinct lack of courage. While at Harvard University he wrote a thesis on the weakness of U.S. and British political leaders who would not 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 longterm problem for which current support is pennywise but pound foolish, the lessons of the importance of lack of courage equally are compelling. A politician who lacks courage has eminent dependability-he or she never surprises anyone with his or her position. It is this politician, Kennedy indicates, who is motivated wholly by "the trappings of office." You all know such individuals. When adding up votes on a party-line vote, they predictably are there--always, always.
What would courage look like in the days of tax and budget discussions? It might include politicians on the right who recognize that 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? True, it then makes it difficult to advance an office-holder's own national gifts to local interests, but that is what courage is all about.
There is little immediate reward for political courage. Kennedy quite correctly points out that there is no difficulty in claiming that ethical courageous people are unethical. Of the eight senators whose courage was cited prominently in Profiles, several of them falsely were accused of being habitual liars and thieves despite the lack of any evidence to those claims. The term scalawag, now interpreted as an evil malevolent person, specifically used to mean a white Southerner who supported Reconstruction.
So, what is the reward for being courageous? Sometimes it is the written history of your times that shows the courageous politician to have been right but, as already noted, one can be courageous and wrong. Also, whether history recognizes a decisionmaker's courage really is contingent, as Pres. Richard Nixon stated in response to Henry Kissinger's assurance that history would treat him kinder than his contemporaries, "It depends on who writes the history."
Sometimes being courageous is its own reward.., only. It can be a reasonable disagreement as to what constitutes bravery, as when the budget proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) first was debated nationally in 2011. Many Democrats called it courageous. Columnist Joe Klein, journalist Zareed Zakaria, and The Economist, three nonconservative sources, indeed called it courageous.
However, Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent of 71me, disagreed, stating that "Ryan is a conservative Republican committee chairman in a conservative Republican caucus. He was reelected last year with 68% of the vote. Sorry ... but 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. Honestly, does anyone think this week has been bad for Ryan's career?"
Not everyone has the opportunity to be as indisputably courageous as British Prime Minister 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."
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss reflects on great presidential courage in his book, aptly titled Presidential Courage, citing several acts of such, including Harry Truman's support of Israel, despite the anti-Semitism of many of his advisers.
It is not easy to find examples--particularly contemporary ones--in which we all can agree what constitutes courageous political positioning, but I think it is indisputable that politicians who never, ever challenge their constituents or parties are the exemplars of noncourageous nonleaders 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 surprising vote or position that one did not expect. Many selfish politicians never are remembered because they refused to take that last vital step.
Richard E. Vatz, Psychology Editor of USA Today, is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson (Md.) University and author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion. This article is adapted from a speech presented to the Maryland Economic Development Association, and was printed in part by The Baltimore Sun.
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|Title Annotation:||American Thought|
|Author:||Vatz, Richard E.|
|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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