The shutdown of the U.S. government occurs in the weeks leading to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and it might be an inviting time to look at a book he published in 1956 while in the U.S. Senate: Profiles in Courage.
Kennedy profiled eight politicians of all stripes who crossed party lines or defied the sentiments of their constituents to do what they felt was right — at a cost to their careers. To cite a few chapters:
- Gov. Sam Houston opposed Texas seceding from the Union in 1861 and was evicted from office for it.
- Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas dissented from his party to cast the decisive vote against convicting President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial in 1868; he never ran for office again.
- Robert Taft of Ohio opposed the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials for war crimes following World War II, saying it was bad justice to conduct trials and executions under rules drawn up after the war was over. The man acclaimed as Mr. Republican could never win his party's nomination for president.
Profiles in Courage was a huge best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, despite doubts that John F. Kennedy had actually written the book that bore his name. In a 2008 memoir, Kennedy's longtime aide Ted Sorensen finally explained, "I did a first draft of most chapters ... and helped choose the words of many of its sentences."
John Kennedy was also not considered an inspiring advertisement for his title. Eleanor Roosevelt memorably said she wished he had "less profile and more courage." A lot of senators felt JFK had evaded voting on the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954. He might have included Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and six other Republicans for denouncing McCarthy in 1950 when that really called for courage; but Kennedy's book doesn't make room for such a chapter.
Yet Profiles in Courage is still a book worth reading because it's the view of an ambitious politician of the kind of courage maybe he wished he had, and that so many American voters say they want. But do we? Today public opinion is polled and charted hourly, almost like the wind and temperature, nationally and locally. How often do voters encourage those politicians who choose to fly against the winds of popularity and say, "I know you may not like this. But I think it's the best thing to do for our country"?
Do we want new profiles in courage, or politicians who will fit into frames?