Quick, name one current member of Congress who would qualify for inclusion in a revised edition of John F. Kennedy’s 1957 bestselling book, Profiles in Courage.
Go brew a cup of tea and contemplate the question. Sleep on it overnight. I’ll wait.
Nothing? Me, either
That’s because there seems to be very little courage in today’s Congress. Exhibit A, of course, is the way Congress behaved during the recent negotiations over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
Truth be known, courage has never been a surplus commodity in Washington, nor in any state capital.
And, perhaps, that’s what has generally allowed our democracy to function admirably in so many ways. The potential for the voters’ wrath is a powerful motivator that has appropriately checked and influenced many congressmen and senators over the years. The ability of the voters to elect their representatives in (generally) fair and open elections is a primary distinction between our system of government and those of authoritarian regimes in places such as North Korea.
If your elected officials fears being tossed out of office, that’s a pretty good sign that you live in a functioning democracy.
But, there is profound respect for the will of the people, and then there’s slavish devotion to their every whim.
It’s that abject, slavish devotion has partly resulted in our current sad state and has given us a dysfunctional democracy.
(Actually, the slavish devotion of our leaders isn’t reserved just for the voters. In fact, the voters seem to often finish a distant second to campaign contributors, especially the lobbyist variety who have many tools at their disposal to influence a congressman’s or senator’s vote.)
When Kennedy wrote his book on political courage in the Senate, all the courageous politicians he profiled were dead: John Quincy Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris and Robert Taft.
Most likely that wasn’t because there were no courageous men or women then serving, but because Kennedy didn’t wish to offend his current Senate colleagues by selecting only one or two from their midst while ignoring other worthy candidates.
And there were worthy candidates — members of Congress willing to defy the wishes of the voters or the special interests in pursuit of the higher calling of serving the best interests of the nation.
Consider the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, during which a handful of white southern congressmen risked the fury of their constituents in the cause of justice and equality.
Among those voting for the 1964 bill were representatives Claude Pepper of Florida and Charles Weltner of Georgia. Pepper survived, but Weltner gave up his seat in 1966 when he refused to endorse the racist Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Lester Maddox. Tennessee Congressman Ross Bass also voted for the civil rights bill, the only congressman representing a rural district to do so. His vote was all the more remarkable, given that his hometown was Pulaski, Tenn., the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.
The following year saw a bit more courage among southern House members when Congress took up the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among those supporting that measure were William Jennings of Virginia and Hale Boggs and Jimmy Morrison of Louisiana. Boggs represented New Orleans and was able to hold his seat in the next election. Morrison, who represented a less-urban district, wasn’t so fortunate. He went down to defeat the following year, failing to win the Democratic Party nomination.
The Vietnam War also featured a few courageous statesmen willing to buck public opinion and the wrath of the White House and their colleagues. Several that come to mind are Wayne Morse of Oregon, Ernest Gruening of Alaska, George McGovern of South Dakota and William Fulbright of Arkansas — each eventually defeated for re-election.
In my mind, few were more courageous than Morse and Gruening, the only two members of Congress to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964.
How is it that we now have almost no one willing to risk defeat at the polls over principle? Doesn’t anyone think first of the national good? And how long can we continue calling our government a democracy when every member of Congress is seemingly most interested in re-election?
Were I appointed speaker of the House for a day, I would demand that each member be present for a reading of the following speech made by Edmund Burke to his constituency, the electors of Bristol, after his election to Parliament in 1774. It’s an apt and timeless reminder of what it means to be a representative of the people:
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,–these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.
Former Louisiana Sen. Russell Long, who I served as press secretary, was fond of saying that the Senate worked so well because of the members’ staggered terms. One third of the body stands for re-election every two years. That, Long observed, meant their six-year terms gave senators plenty of latitude to cast unpopular votes and then explain them to constituents or allow the voters’ fury to fade. He joked that the first two years of a senator’s term he is a statesman; the second two years, a politician; and, the final two years, a demagogue.
Long left the Senate in 1987, just as television was allowed into the Senate chamber (a move he had long opposed) and the nature of the Senate began to rapidly change. He would, I am sure, be appalled to behold today’s Senate, a body much like the House — largely a collection of demagogues, always on the make, always grubbing for campaign contributions, always campaigning for re-election.
There’s much to blame for this sad state: The 24-hour news cycle, the explosion of money in politics, the endless campaigning and the outsize influence of political consultants and pollsters in the legislative process, the gerrymandering to create safe congressional districts that result in a polarized House, and the virtual disappearance of moderates in the Senate.
Perhaps I’m missing or forgetting contemporary examples of profiles in courage — members of Congress willing to risk it all in pursuit of the national good.
A few names do spring to mind. John McCain was once a maverick willing to speak truth to his party, but now appears to be nothing but a bitter man, eaten up with hatred for Barack Obama. While I don’t often agree with him, Joe Lieberman challenged his party over the war in Iraq and other issues and was denied renomination by Connecticut Democrats. However, he has retired from the Senate.
Indeed, the courage pickings are slim — and that’s not good for our democracy.
In the coming years, Congress must address plenty of tough issues — including the national debt, immigration, entitlement reform, and global climate change. To deal with these and other issues in a constructive way will require mature, courageous leadership from our president and members of Congress.
Twenty years from now, I hope that someone will update John F. Kennedy’s famous book with some new stories from this generation of leaders. But it’s not likely that will be possible because of our leaders’ shortsighted focus on the next election, and not history’s judgment.
Does anyone remember, off hand, how many times John Quincy Adams got himself re-elected by his Massachusetts constituents? Of course not. What we vividly remember is that Adams, in countless ways, distinguished himself as a fearless leader willing to tackle tough issues, like slavery, by applying his moral and sound judgment almost without fail.
History celebrates Adams not because he was popular back home, but because he cared little about his popularity if it meant not putting the nation’s interests first.
Show me, please, one such member of Congress today.
- Our Pathetic Congress (proglib.newsvine.com)