Sunday, December 28, 2008

Profiles in Courage by John Kennedy

What a fine reminder that once upon a time, politicians were statesmen too. Luckily for the entire world, I think that such a time may have come again now that we’ve elected Barak Obama. But I get ahead of myself, because when I read this book, the election was still weeks away, and I still had some concern that the forces of ignorance would once again carry the day in the US of A. So I turned to a book I’d long heard mentioned by a man whose life was over long before I was born, but whole legacy of nobility in politics inspired a generation.

Written while he was a freshman senator, Kennedy’s book provides compelling and heartfelt portraits of other members of the US Senate who provided examples of political courage, typically by doing something that was against the common grain, was political suicide, or both. Sam Houston, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Taft, and one or two others. It is impressive, filled with historical portraits which are interesting and motivational. In particular, Kennedy’s descriptions of Daniel Webster portray him as perhaps the greatest American ever to live, and make me want to read more about him.

I’m disappointed to read that Kennedy is now believed to have not been wholly responsible for writing this book; apparently he had a lot of help. In any case though, this doesn’t cheapen the work. It is still a fascinating, occasionally moving collection of biographical sketches of politicians who were motivated by higher values than a need for reelection or a desire for power. Profiles in Courage should serve to remind us all that the US Congress is, for all its faults, a courtroom in which moral choices which shape our future and reflect our national character are tried. Though our leaders may too often be found wanting, the institution provides a venue in which the best in us can sometimes be found on display.

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