John F. Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage

Profiles In CourageThe official story is that in 1955, John F. Kennedy, then a Massachusetts Senator, wrote Profiles In Courage while recovering from back surgery. Two years later, it would win the Pulitzer Prize, and three years after that the young senator became the 35th President of the United States. But the official story leaves out some important details. Most of the research for the book, and much of the writing, was done by Kennedy’s speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, who receives early mention for his help on the project but no official credit for its composition or share in the glory of its acclaim. According to Sorensen, he was, however, offered a substantial amount of money in recognition of the book’s success. One might argue that to accept a Pulitzer Prize under false pretences is a decidedly uncourageous thing to do – Eleanor Roosevelt famously quipped, “I wish that Kennedy had a little less profile and more courage” – but two factors serve to mitigate his guilt somewhat, at least in my eyes. The first is that, if he did not author the book’s every sentence, he did write the chapters that bookend it, and was certainly heavily involved in editing and approving the intervening chapters. The second is that the back injury that eventually required surgery had its origins in World War II, when Kennedy’s patrol boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. He reportedly rescued the only other survivor by clenching the strap of the man’s life jacket between his teeth and swimming them to the safety of a nearby island, where he had to wait for rescue. For this he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal “for extremely heroic conduct.”

The courage on display in Profiles In Courage, however, is not so much bravery in the line of fire as courage in the face of unpopular opinion, and this raises an interesting and non-trivial issue, for each of the eight senators profiled here – John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris and Robert A. Taft – defied the express wishes of their constituents to pursue what they believed to be the right course of action. There is a sense in which this individuality is certainly laudatory, and another in which it is pernicious. Here, for example, is Thomas Hart Benton, making a distinction few would quarrel with: “I value solid popularity – the esteem of good men for good action. I despise the bubble popularity that is won without merit and lost without crime.” But Kennedy also quotes him as boasting, like a medieval monarch, that “Benton and the people, Benton and Democracy, are one and the same, sir; synonymous terms, sir, synonymous terms.” There is a fine line between political courage that causes one to challenge or vote against the wishes of ones constituents, and the end of representative government.

Quite a few of today’s most popular politicians speak in platitudes, with their opinions subject to census data rather than conscience, and so I think the first test of courage in a politician should be their willingness to say what the public does not want to hear. But while there will always be people willing to defy the crowd, their existence depends on a public willing to elect them, and if a society or country grows complacent or comfortable or immature, sycophancy will replace courage as the dominant characteristic of its political class. Kennedy knows this: “A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today.”