America's Crisis of Courage

Character remains the issue that confronts us in almost every story about national politics today.

President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 1961. (AP)

The American crisis is, at its root, a crisis of character. Yes, many other forces and phenomena are in play: the crash of 2008; technologically driven changes to the economy; gerrymandering and sociological divisions between coast and heartland, urban and rural life; cultural clashes over the norms of marriage, drug use, and religious liberty; wars that have not gone well; the splintering of national media into vehement electronically bound communities of self-righteousness; the decay of the political parties as instruments for integrating and reconciling differences; poor national-level leadership and the accidents of personality. But it is character that remains the issue that confronts us in almost every story about national politics that one encounters daily.

Of all the elements that constitute character, courage is the essential one. Physical courage is in part innate, in part something that can be inculcated by training and experience. The courage to take responsibility emanates more naturally from ambition. What is rarer and more difficult than either is moral courage.

As historian Allan Nevins put it, “moral courage is allied with the other traits that make up character: honesty, deep seriousness, a firm sense of principle, candor, resolution.” And of moral courage there is an unquestioned deficit today—in the halls of Congress where the Republican Party has yielded what once were its values to an adventurer in the White House; in a White House presided over by a bully and a braggart who infects even upright generals with his breathtaking dishonesty; in universities where administrators and faculty yield to student mobs baying to be protected from uncomfortable ideas and unpopular individuals, and elsewhere.

Which is why, when Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee openly defy party, president, and constituents, they deserve cheers, choosing as they have to walk away from the most exclusive club in the world, and careers that they craved. Which is why, too, Professor Allison Stanger of Middlebury College deserves celebration for courting a wrung neck to stand up for conservative scholar Charles Murray’s right to be heard there. The dark political farce in Washington and controversies over academic freedom in our universities are linked, because truckling to a capricious president or to aggrieved post-adolescents is cowardice in the face of those who themselves are cowards. The prevalence of both should make Americans worry.

Purists—writers safely ensconced in progressive newspapers, or intellectuals in conservative think tanks—may belittle the resolution these actions required. They may dismiss the Republican politicians like Senator Ben Sasse who oppose the administration in less vehement ways, or shrug off as unimportant the University of Chicago’s ringing defense of academic freedom. But they should not. The mark of civic courage is taking a stand against your own kind, particularly when the payoff for so doing consists of cracking friendships, torrents of abuse, physical threats, and careers broken or abandoned. Until one has experienced those things, one should not deprecate the guts of those who have.

Decent, moderate Americans often ask what is to be done about a crisis that they know transcends individual incidents and personalities. Not the least thing might be to study political courage on their own and with their children. So here is a piece of advice: Obtain a copy of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Kennedy’s 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning book looks at senatorial courage, as manifested first by John Quincy Adams in breaking with the Federalists and New England interests by siding with Thomas Jefferson, the man who had beaten his father in a presidential election, over the 1807 embargo of commerce with Britain. Kennedy then looks at three clusters of senators, before and after the Civil War, and then in the 20th century.

After Kennedy’s assassination the book was turned into a television series, some episodes of which can be found on YouTube. Additional characters, many of them referenced in Kennedy’s book, were added to his original nine, including Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama, who destroyed a distinguished political career (including presidential aspirations) in 1924 by taking on the Klu Klux Klan, or Anne Hutchinson, whose Quaker faith ran into the norms of Puritan Massachusetts, or John Adams, who risked obloquy by defending British soldiers being tried for the Boston Massacre.

As Kennedy acknowledged, his subjects’s motives were undoubtedly mixed, and their causes in some cases were questionable. Daniel Webster’s defense of the Compromise of 1850 ran against many of his earlier stands against slavery. Robert Taft’s stand in 1946 against the Nuremberg trial was in part a denunciation of ex post facto justice, but in part too probably connected to his unflinching isolationism. But as a politician, Kennedy understood what it meant when, for example, Edmund G. Ross, a Union veteran, anti-slavery activist, and senator from Kansas, cast the deciding vote against impeachment in the trial of President Andrew Johnson by the Senate in 1868. That was the end of Ross’s career, and he knew it.

Of course, Kennedy himself had shameful moments. He was decidedly unheroic in the matter of Joseph McCarthy, whom he long refrained from denouncing, and was more than willing to benefit from tawdry politics, as Richard Nixon discovered in 1960. His private life was hardly admirable in an unqualified way—his sexual predation, as we would now understand it, looks awful in retrospect. For that matter, it has become clear that most of Profiles in Courage was written by his exceptionally talented speechwriter and counselor Ted Sorenson, to whom Kennedy quietly assigned most of the royalties from the book.

But in a way, that is precisely the point. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then imperfect people expressing the right sentiments and occasionally doing the right thing are to be praised. The current sensibility of American politics sneers at lapses and inconsistency, as it does at compromise. The ability to pinpoint discrepancies in speech and deed provided by the vast amounts of data that flood the internet means that we can indulge ourselves in microscopic scrutiny of our statues’s clay feet. The shrillness of social media and the ironic or sneering pose that is the reigning vice of contemporary writers leaves little room for admiring what should be admired in flawed people and institutions. And so, unsurprisingly, some Americans succumb to the nihilism and cynicism that inform Russian propaganda and political warfare against America’s democratic institutions.

The challenge, thus, is to recover an admiration of imperfect civic courage by flawed people, even in occasionally dubious causes. That is best done by returning to our own history, not in a spirit of hero worship, but of respect for the virtues that make free government possible. It is an educational motif out of style, and desperately needed.

In his famous essay on “the moral equivalent of war,” William James, psychologist and pacifist, said that the qualities associated with courage are “the rock upon which states are built—unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths fit only for contempt.” If Americans hope for their politics to recover from its abysmal condition, they need to find it in their own past, and they need to begin with courage—the virtue, Churchill is reported to have said, “that makes all others possible.” Over coming years, it is in civic education about and for political courage that a way out of this crisis lies.