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Published: Sunday, 6/4/2006

'Profiles in Courage' can inspire us today

My copy of Profiles in Courage is a brittle paperback, awkwardly small in the hand, tender at the binding, worn at the edges. The paper is yellowed, and shadowy blotches of age creep darkly across the pages. It cost 35 cents when it was new. It has rested on my bookshelves, unread, for about four decades.

The phrase "profiles in courage" is a familiar part of our language today, but the contents of the book are as foreign as Treasure Island or Little Women, books that once were read but today, sadly, are all but ignored. But the Kennedy book, which once was a fixture on the bookshelves of the American home, marked me as a boy and this year, on its 50th anniversary, I wondered how well it held up.

It turns out that stories of political courage are as inspiring in the beginning of the 21st century, when there is so little of it, as they were in the middle of the 20th century, when we needed it as much as we do today. Every age looks back on the past with mystery and maybe wonder, but there were few giants in the land in the 1950s and there are precious few now. Even Sen. John F. Kennedy could have shown more courage in that period, tolerating as he did the cruel mendacity of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

But Kennedy, who appreciated a lit torch, put the fire back in courage, rescuing from the past stories of courage that had been forgotten. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar is not, for example, a household name, except perhaps in the household of Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr., or Sean Wilentz. But Kennedy reminded readers of Lamar's "intentional and stunningly courageous disobedience to the will of his constituents" in supporting the ruling of the commission on the contested 1876 presidential election and opposing the monetization of silver.

"The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the bidding of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country," Lamar said. Presumably his pollster was apoplectic.

Along with Lamar are others, courageous political figures who determined that leadership in a democracy does not require slavish devotion to the popular will. This is still a controversial notion, for it defines courage in our political system as willful defiance of the bedrock principle of that very system. And yet even at the time in which this book was written, in the middle of the century of the common man, there was a recognition that sometimes leaders must lead and not merely follow.

There is one other contradiction at the heart of courage. It is the courage of compromise. Ordinarily we define courage as uncompromising, but here in Profiles in Courage is Daniel Webster, reviled for his willingness, in 1850, to compromise to save the Union. Kennedy offers an explanation on a page that, in my copy, has wriggled loose from the binding: "We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not of principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves."

So this is a book about leaders who did not follow, about men of iron will who bent. It is a book that proves that courage is a complex thing.

There is John Quincy Adams, dedicated son of a president, who found virtue in the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, who defeated his father for re-election. There is Thomas Hart Benton, who resisted the orthodoxies of party and section in the fight to save the Union. And there is Robert Taft, who in the triumphal aftermath of world war was a lone voice against the war-crimes trials of Nazi leaders.

This tidy little volume also clears up a mystery that has nagged at me for some time. I have always believed that the very best Kennedy speech ever was the one he delivered in the State House on Boston's Beacon Hill in January, 1961, when, like Lincoln before him, he bid farewell to the state that had nurtured his dreams and his idealism. In this speech he set out four historical tests of leadership. Here's how he starts:

"First, were we truly men of courage - with the courage to stand up to one's enemies -- and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one's own associates - the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed?"

For years I wondered what had inspired that riff, which went on to speak of judgment, integrity, and dedication. Now I know. It must have come from a tribute to the Republican senator from Nebraska that went like this:

"History asks, Did the man have integrity? Did the man have unselfishness? Did the man have courage? Did the man have consistency?"

Those words, directed at George Norris, were spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and quoted in Kennedy's book .

Deep in the recesses of my memory I recall a voice reading three lines that etched themselves in my mind, from a 1960s television series on these profiles of courage. It may have been Kennedy's voice himself, for it had that dash - that is Mary McGrory's word, and as such is precisely the right word - that Kennedy lent to American civic life. Those lines turn up as the very last three sentences of this book: "The stories of past courage can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul."

There's a new edition of this book out, sturdier and prettier than the one I now know why I cherished. I'm going to buy a copy for my daughters. I pray they read it.



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