The Pulitzer Prize winning classic by President John F. Kennedy, with an introduction by Caroline Kennedy and a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy. Written in 1955 by the then junior senator from the state of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage serves as a clarion call to every American. In this book Kennedy chose eight of his historical colleagues to profile for their acts of astounding integrity in the face of overwhelming opposition. These heroes, coming from different junctures in our nation's history, include John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, and Robert A. Taft. Now, a half-century later, the book remains a moving, powerful, and relevant testament to the indomitable national spirit and an unparalleled celebration of that most noble of human virtues. It resounds with timeless lessons on the most cherished of virtues and is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Profiles in Courage is as Robert Kennedy states in the foreword: "not just stories of the past but a book of hope and confidence for the future. What happens to the country, to the world, depends on what we do with what others have left us." Along with vintage photographs and an extensive author biography, this book features Kennedy's correspondence about the writing project, contemporary reviews, a letter from Ernest Hemingway, and two rousing speeches from recipients of the Profile in Courage Award. Introduction by John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline Kennedy, forward by John F. Kennedy's brother Robert F. Kennedy.
It is not a surprise if senators do no come to mind if one imagines courageous people. Nay-saying is the chief function of the senate. It is a feature and not a bug. Senators have little to fear for nay-saying. Incumbents are nearly impossible to unseat, way past their shelf-life. Their six year terms leave ample time for amnesia to work. Courage for a senator according to Kennedy is voting against their party/state interest. I would divide JFK's examples into three categories: 1) Conscience voters: Thomas Hart Benton (MO, pro Union), Sam Houston (TX, against secession), Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (MS, against currency debasing), George Norris (NE, filibustered WWI entry). 2) Legalists: Edmund G. Ross (KS, against impeachment), Robert A. Taft (OH, against Nürnberg death penalties). 3) Compromisers: John Quincy Adams (MA, pro Embargo), Daniel Webster (MA, slavery compromise). Among the decisions only Edmund Ross' refusal to vote for Johnson's impeachment had a historic impact. All the other events would have happened even if the senator under discussion had voted otherwise (the 1850 compromise is debatable, though).
Overall, a not particularly well written book which served its purpose in adding an intellectual halo to JFK but does not stand the test of time.
Herbert Parmet, a historian who wrote a book on Kennedy, analyzing Profiles in Courage does believe Kennedy largely wrote the opening and closing thematic chapters, and those are I think the parts of the book of enduring historical interest given his presidency. In them Kennedy lays out a philosophy of governance. Elected representatives, Kennedy avers, should not "serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion." I've seen some reviewers lambast that view, claiming that for elected representatives to go against their constituencies, whatever their own views, is undemocratic. Personally, I'd counter that America is not a democracy, not a direct one, and was never designed to be. We're a republic. We elect representatives who are supposed to exercise their best judgement, then defend it to their constituencies who are then free to elect someone else if they don't agree. I'm with Kennedy on that.
Kennedy did apparently come up with the idea of the book: stories of eight United States Senators who cast unpopular, potentially career-ending votes. The profiles included some names I think will be familiar to anyone acquainted with American History: John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston and Robert Taft. The other names are much more obscure, although I found the story of Edmund G. Ross, who cast the deciding vote not to impeach President Andrew Johnson, the most memorable in the book. (Although not mentioned is that there is considerable evidence Ross was bribed for his vote. But that wouldn't make for a profile of courage, would it?) All in all, I did find the stories entertaining, but insightful, impressive works of history worthy of an award? No. But I think those opening and closing chapters, "Courage in Politics" and "The Meaning of Courage" well worth reading and thinking about for anyone interested in politics, particularly the American system. That's why in my estimation the book is worth a three-star rating, whatever its genesis and flaws.
There are many other examples of courage in this book. We ought to take a deep breath and listen to these words by a Democrat who would no longer be welcome in his own party. It might make a difference.
The book is interesting because unfortunately in our time of partisan politics it is rare when someone bucks the majority and votes their conscience or what the country really needs. We need more politicians who look out for the country first and their narrow minded partisan groups last, right/left, Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative.
A must read for the history major.