This week Nicole Lebenson shares a book by President John F. Kennedy
I don’t remember why I decided to pick up the book Profiles in Courage from the Brooklyn College Library; it’s one of those works that everyone refers to and that no one seems to have really read. But with presidential debates raging, and with the Kennedy-esque Mr. Obama running for office, I thought it might be relevant reading material for our times.
Profiles in Courage was written by J.F.K in 1954, when he was just a young senator. Bedridden because of serious back surgery, Kennedy, with the help of his aides (some say that he had a little too much help from his aides), set about compiling the stories of courageous acts of U.S Senators. They are inspirational not because they are the classic stories of courage from American mythology, but because they are obscure –many of the men discussed have been all but forgotten by history. In fact, many of the men are not even on what you and I would call the side of right. Kennedy singles out for praise those who followed their conscience and not popular opinion, men who, as Daniel Webster said, ‘spoke the truth rather than pleasing things.”
The book covers the three phases of the history of the senate of the United States, beginning with its early years, when Washington D.C was in the boonies, and the monumental heroes of the American Revolution were still stalking about the Senate floor. Kennedy does what only the best historian’s do; he makes the world of the past come alive through his love and attention to vivid detail. He describes a world where George Washington still roamed; an age when members of the House of represenatives “might sit with hat on head and feet on desk, watching John Randolph of Roanoke stride in wearing silver spurs, carrying a heavy riding whip, followed by a foxhound which slept beneath his desk”(26).
Although a few of the giants of American history cross the pages of this work, most of the men have forgettable names attached to unforgettably coruageous acts.In the same section, Kennedy praises both Daniel Webster, a man described as “ a living lie because no man on earth could be as great as he looked”(60), for destroying his political career by supporting the compromise of 1850 and the little known Thomas Hart Benton, a slaveholder who opposed the extension of that insitution into the territories and was almost shot for it by another Southerner on the senate floor.
Surprisingly, Kennedy skips the heroics of Araham Lincoln and goes directly to the post war period of reconstuction, when the senate was losing power as a legitimate legislative body and becoming a conglomeration of party bosses and businessmen. There were no more heroes of the revolution hanging around, which is why the men in this section in particular do not have familiar names. But those he discusses are the men who denied their political pasts, parties and sectional ties in favor of reuniting the union and upholding the principles of the American constitution.
The last section of the book relates the acts of those in more modern times, men who stood for peace during times of war and defended those beneath defense when it meant protecting a violation fo the American justice system. For those who like history, those who have any interest in the American political past, or those who simply want to read an entertaining book that will provide impressive bits of information to throw around at cocktail parties, Profiles in Courage is it. Written with a tremendous sense of humor by an author with an imitmate knowledge and love of history, Kennedy cherishes the rugged individuals that pepper the pages of American history. Although these tales of political courage may seem far removed from everyday life, Kennedy chooses to close his work by saying that “these problems do not even concern politics alone – for the same basic choice of courage or compliance continually faces us all, whether we fear the anger of constituents, friends, a board of directors of our union, whenever we stand against the flow of opinion on strongly contested issues. For - without belittling the courage with which men have died - we should not forget those acts of courage with which men …have lived.”