Five years before he became president, John Kennedy, then a young Massachusetts senator, published Profiles in Courage, the book that above all others helped voters see him as a serious political thinker. Today, Profiles in Courage, which quickly made the bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, has acquired new relevance.
With its biographies of eight senators, ranging from Daniel Webster to Sam Houston, who risked their political careers by taking unpopular stands, Profiles in Courage raises the question of whether the current Republican party has within it a small, but courageous, House and Senate minority no longer willing to be President Trump’s legislative enablers.
President Trump, it is clear, does not intend to change how he governs. Whether he is undermining the FBI with his tweets, creating new debt in order to give tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, or attacking immigrants, the president has laid out the course of action he intends to follow.
In 2018 only those in his party can prevent President Trump from continuing with policies that both harm the poor and undermine trust in the government. Street demonstrations, as important as they may be for the upcoming midterm elections, will not change the Republican control of Congress this year.
In Profiles in Courage, what unites the eight senators Kennedy focused on is not that they were liberal or conservative. As Kennedy wrote in his concluding chapter, the senators he most admired were tied together by their belief in “national interest, rather than private or political gain.”
Pragmatist that he was, Kennedy was not an advocate of political recklessness. When it came to defining political courage, he turned not to a politician but to the non-ideological Ernest Hemingway and his view of courage as “grace under pressure.”
Hemingway’s use of the phrase comes in a discussion about bull fighting in a 1926 letter that he wrote to his friend and fellow novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In that letter Hemingway makes it clear that he is not referring to mere guts when he talks about courage. “Guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers,” Hemingway jokes. The grace under pressure that Hemingway has in mind involves taking on risk in a way that converts it into an act to be admired as opposed to a mere display of daring.
Kennedy demonstrated grace under pressure early in his presidency when he refused to take the hardline advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff and avoided going to war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Kennedy was even more successful in demonstrating grace under pressure in his domestic policy. When in 1963 he broke with many in his party, especially those in the South, to put forward the bill that after his death became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kennedy didn’t call attention to himself. He instead asked white Americans to understand what it meant to be African American in a segregated country.
“If a man because his skin is dark cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available,” Kennedy asked in a nationally televised speech, “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
Kennedy’s political courage, very different from the physical courage that made him a World War II Navy hero when he commanded a PT boat, offers a lesson to Trump’s Republican enablers if they will only think empathetically and put themselves in the shoes of families that cannot afford medical insurance or undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children but now facing deportation to countries in which they have never lived.
When he became president, Kennedy made a point of asking Hemingway to attend his inauguration. Hemingway was too ill to travel to Washington, but after watching Kennedy’s inauguration on television, he sent him an admiring note. “It is a good thing to have a brave man as our President in times as tough as these are for our country and the world,” Hemingway wrote.
How rewarding it would be if in 2018 we could express similar admiration for at least a handful of Republican legislators willing to challenge the president when he promises to make life harder for the most vulnerable Americans. This month’s debate over a possible government shutdown should give us a preview of what lies ahead.