The true democracy . . . puts its faith in the people –faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment –faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.
–John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage
Looking back at these lines from John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book of 1955, it’s clear that the dashing senator from Massachusetts intended Profiles in Courage to be a blueprint on which he sketched the outlines of his aspirations for what he hoped might be his legacy in public service. Whether Kennedy himself penned the sentences of Profiles in Courage or approved words composed by speechwriter Theodore Sorenson doesn’t really matter anymore. What does matter is that the book was proof of the outsized ambitions of a young senator who would become a hero from the day of his election as the first Roman Catholic president.
Kennedy’s heroes or, as he might have thought of them, his mentors –John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft— were the historical figures who the young senator hoped to measure himself and others against.
In his book, which seems more like a relic from a lost and more idealistic era than a playbook for our politically cynical time, Kennedy stared unflinchingly at the pressures of being a political animal. (He was, of course, a member of the pack and one of the fiercest at that.) What he identified were three primary pressures of public life. First was the pressure to be liked. Second was the pressure to simply hold onto the job. And third were the divergent interests of an elected official’s constituency and outside interest groups. For those of us who are not elected to public office, similar pressures surely are brought to bear, both at home and in the workplace, by bosses, colleagues, friends, and family.
Sadly, in our time examples of political and social courage have slowed to a trickle. Still, floating around amongst the detritus of today’s ethically challenged social and political climate are a few shining lights.
Here, then, I offer my own highly subjective list of individuals who deserve to be profiled for their own acts of courage.
Sister Simone Campbell and the Nuns on the Bus
Touring aboard a bus this summer, the sisters of the National Catholic Social Justice Lobby brought their protest against the radical Ryan budget and its destructive implications for the poor and middle class to economically struggling communities in nine different states. If there is any doubt about the courage it took to engage in such public protest, it should be dispelled by the reaction of the nuns’ superiors. The big guys, sitting pretty in Rome, were definitely not amused. They went so far as to accuse Sister Simone and the other nuns of “dereliction of duty” to the Church, even though American bishops, Catholic social -justice leaders, theologians, and clergy joined together to issue a statement in solidarity with the nuns, labeling Ryan’s proposed budget cuts “ morally indefensible” and a betrayal of “Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good.” Undeterred by the Vatican’s edicts to desist, Sister Simone and the other nuns have taken to the airwaves to spread their message.
Chief Justice John Roberts
From the day the Affordable Care Act was signed by President Obama in March 2012, Republicans and Tea Party ideologues declared holy war to defeat it. The troops believed that Justice Roberts was a loyal solider in the crusade. For reasons not entirely clear –perhaps fearing for the historic legitimacy of the Supreme Court—Roberts broke from expectations. Roberts’ deciding vote justly upholding the constitutionality of the act earned him some down and dirty invective from his conservative buddies. One pundit spewed, “His reputation is forever stained in the eyes of conservatives.” Roberts was called a traitor by many, while the most vile attack of all came from conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, who called Roberts “chickensh*t.” (So much for conservative respect for the institution of the Supreme Court.)
The unnamed individuals who formed human walls at funeral sites to shield mourners from demonstrations by the Westboro Baptist Church
They came wearing red shirts in Columbia, Missouri, and maroon in College Station, Texas, but their intent was the same. Their names are unknown, but their decency and courage deserve to be recognized. They linked arms to form two inspiring and heroic human walls to shield the families and mourners from the taunts and insults of the misguided parishioners of the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of Army Specialist Sterling Wyatt, killed in action at age twenty-one during Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale, killed by a fellow soldier at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
State Senator Steven Saland
New York State Senator Saland (Republican, 41st district, my district) voted in favor of New York’s Marriage Equality Act in June 2011. By casting the proud and decisive “yes” vote, Saland resisted the pressures and outright threats to pull endorsements and financial support for his re-election by New York’s establishment Republican Party and the New York Conservative Party. Saland listened to, in Kennedy’s words, his “conscientious judgment” but also to the entreaties of family members and his spiritual guide, his rabbi. Putting aside threats to his political future, Saland explained that he followed the tenets of his upbringing to support what should be shared American values of fairness and equality.
Senator Olympia Snowe
Citing the rancor and growing paralysis due to hyper-partisanship in the Senate, Maine’s three-term moderate Republican senator announced that she would not be running for re-election. Her stunning decision followed Snowe’s courageous vote as the only Republican in the Senate to break ranks and vote “no” on the Blunt amendment that would have allowed employers to withhold insurance coverage for any health-care service that they believed would violate their “religious beliefs and moral convictions.”
Eagle Scouts who returned their medals
Following the reaffirmation in July by the Boy Scouts of America of their official policy of excluding openly gay youth and adults from membership and leadership positions, several dozen Eagle Scouts publicly returned their medals in protest. One individual wrote regretfully, “I can no longer maintain any connection to an organization which actively promotes a bigoted and misguided policy.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, television cameras caught McCain in a rare act of committing political courage when he corrected an elderly supporter’s contention that Barack Obama was a practicing Muslim and an Arab. Relieving the supporter of the microphone, McCain showed deep instincts of decency and courage when he unhesitatingly affirmed that Obama was a “decent family man and citizen” and that he was “not an Arab.”
McCain distinguished himself once again when he stood up on the Senate floor recently and defended Huma Abedin, aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, against the spurious accusations by Michele Bachmann and other right-wing mudslingers that Abedin’s family had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and that Abedin herself used her position in the State Department to tilt American foreign policy in favor of the Egyptian political party.
The political peril of McCain’s spontaneous acts of decency can be measured against the calculated silence of two other prominent Republicans—Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney—when they refused to defend Obama against supporters’ false accusations. What word should we use to describe Santorum and Romney and others like them who lack the backbone to do and say what is right no matter the consequence? That word certainly would not be the one that Kennedy used. Courage.
Renee Shur lives and works in New York’s Hudson Valley.