Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK and Profiles in Courage

While I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye when the tragic events surrounding President John F. Kennedy's assassination unfolded on November 22, 1963, I nonetheless came to admire him greatly as a great American hero and one of our finest Presidents. As a young man serving as a PT-boat commander in the South Pacific during World War II, he imperiled his own life to save a fellow crew member when their boat was rammed and destroyed by a Japanese destroyer. Thanks to that act of bravery he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for “extremely heroic conduct” as well as a Purple Heart for the spinal injuries which would plague him for years to come.

While he was only in office 1000+ days, it was enough time to help create an incredible legacy. President Kennedy created the Peace Corps; he inspired a nation to get involved and make a difference with his memorable quote on his Inauguration Day, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" as well as bringing the world together with his call to other the nations to join together to fight what he called the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself"; he lead the way for our country’s first steps toward space exploration, becoming “the first President to ask Congress to approve more than 22 billion dollars for Project Apollo, which had the goal of landing an American man on the moon before the end of the decade”; and with his introduction into Congress of a new Civil Rights bill to help end racism, took the first steps towards righting a nation’s wrong; with that amended proposal ultimately becoming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which is “the nation's benchmark civil rights legislation, and it continues to resonate in America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” While the President didn’t live to see the fruits of his efforts, his legacy nonetheless lives on in the generations whose lives were changed for the better by his action.

Inspired by what was the upcoming (today’s) 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I recently borrowed the Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage from my public library. Written by John F. Kennedy while serving as Senator from Massachusetts, Profiles in Courage focuses on eight United States Senators whom Kennedy felt risked their life and career to stand up for their beliefs, to protect and keep together our Union, and to help shape our great Nation to what it is today. The eight senators highlighted were John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris and Robert A. Taft.

Senator Kennedy identified what he felt were the three major pressures playing a role in discouraging political courage: pressure to be liked, pressure to be re-elected, and pressure from constituents and interest groups. Robert F. Kennedy wrote the foreword to the edition of the book which I read, and in it he states that his brother was fond of Dante’s quote "the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of crisis, maintain their neutrality." Whether you agreed with their decisions, like Daniel Webster, the Senator from Massachusetts, who in an effort to avert secession and a civil war sided with the Clay Compromise which said slaveholders were entitled to property rights, fugitive slave laws should be strengthened and the issue of slavery put aside for the good of the union; Webster and others like him did not remain neutral in a time of crisis and you had to admire their grace under pressure in making difficult decisions for the nation’s greater good, sometimes to their own detriment. As a young nation struggling to just stay together, hard decisions and sacrifices needed to be made; Henry Clay is quoted as saying "compromise was the cement that held the Union together."

Senator Kennedy goes on to explain how many Senators are focused on their local interests, but in Washington they serve as “United States Senators” and in doing so should focus on the national good. Senators should not "serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion.” Inherent in their constituent’s vote is the trust in their ability and judgments, and as such sometimes that means the need to "lead, inform, correct, and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion." He goes on to say "Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests...and thus, in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival…and only the very courageous will be able to keep alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation." A startling and foreshadowing statement when you take into account our current political landscape and the pressures faced by politicians dealing with a 24-hour news cycle through print, online, and television media.

In addition to Daniel Webster’s act of compromise, the book highlights other acts of courage and compromise made by John Quincy Adams, Senator from Massachusetts, who sided with Thomas Jefferson in 1807 in enacting an embargo against Great Britain to shut off international trade to retaliate against British aggression to American merchant ships, in direct opposition to his Federalist party and despite the severe impact it would have on his home state’s economy as the leading commercial state in the nation; a decision which prompted Adams to resign his Senate seat in 1808. Robert A. Taft, son of William Howard Taft opposed the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Taft felt “defendants had been tried under ex post facto laws (laws that apply retroactively, especially those that criminalize an action that was legal when it was committed), these laws are expressly forbidden in the U.S. constitution.” Despite being vilified in the press and by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Taft believed so strongly in the wisdom of the constitution, it was worth speaking out even at the expense of his political career.

While the why’s behind each individual’s selection for the book were interesting, if a little (alright a lot) dense, I found the simpler human stories shared about each man even more fascinating; such as the fact that despite distinguishing himself with a brilliant career as Secretary of State, President, and Member of Congress, John Quincy Adams faced feelings of inadequacy, somberly writing that his "whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook." Or the fact that Sam Houston, Senator from Texas, had actually first served as Governor of Tennessee, and that as a child he ran away from his Tennessee frontier home and was adopted by the Cherokee Indians. Or Senator Benton’s softer side, who it is told on one occasion while entertaining a French prince and other distinguished guests, his wife, who suffered with both physical and mental illness, rambled into the room while not fully dressed “and stared adoringly at her husband. Interrupting the embarrassed silence that followed, Senator Benton with dignity and majesty introduced his wife to the prince and others, seated her by his side, and resumed conversation.” These random tidbits of information and many others liked them helped to humanize each man and make the book more than just a compilation of facts.

As we mark this anniversary and face the ones to come, we should celebrate and honor President Kennedy’s memory and commitment to public service by giving back to our community and in turn our nation. As another great man once said:

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
You don't have to have a college degree to serve.
You don't have to have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.
You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don't have to know Einstein's "Theory of Relativity" to serve.
You don't have to know the Second Theory of Thermal Dynamics in Physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace,
a soul generated by love,
and you can be that servant.”

Excerpted from The Drum Major Instinct, 1968
a sermon by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.