To be courageous requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage. In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follow his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient — they can teach, they can offer hope, they provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.
John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage
s Democrats and Republicans haggle over what sort of kangaroo court Moscow Mitch McConnell will eventually impose on the cowardly lions of the Republican Senate, we should take just a moment to recognize and appreciate that something truly remarkable has taken place: politicians rising above politics.
Republicans say the impeachment of Donald Trump is entirely political. And they’re right. It is entirely political — for them. Republicans in Congress are incapable of anything else. They can’t imagine any politician rising above a purely political calculus or that any action could be governed and guided by anything other than politics.
And a lot of Americans would agree. That’s how jaded we’ve become. We’re so cynical, we find it inconceivable that our elected federal officials could be motivated by ethics, morality, conscience, and what’s good for the country, not just their own re-election prospects.
The only Republicans who can conceive of such a thing have retired or have switched parties (Justin Amash).
How can you tell when a politician has risen above politics? When they do something that will likely put their political futures in jeopardy — which is to say, raising their odds of not being re-elected.
That’s just what the Democrats in the House of Representatives did when they impeached President Donald Trump. This is what’s known as “political courage,” something that hasn’t existed in the Republican Party at the national level since the death of John McCain. Even though many, if not all, Republican senators know that Trump is guilty of abuse of power, not a single one will muster enough political courage to vote for his removal.
Political courage is a rare commodity in any era. In the 1950s, John F. Kennedy wrote a book titled, Profiles in Courage, detailing examples of senators who voted their conscience even though they paid a political price. It wasn’t a long book (eight profiles) and Ted Sorenson wrote most of it. Nevertheless, it set up a paradigm to follow.
These days, political courage at the national level can only be found in the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t motivated by political considerations — probably 80 percent of the time, maybe 90. Oh hell, let’s say 98 percent. But not always. They proved it by impeaching Trump in spite of the political risks. It could cost them greatly in November. Faced with blatant abuse of presidential power, a president misusing his office to falsely smear a potential opposing candidate, Democrats had two choices: do nothing (political cowardice) or do their job (holding Trump accountable for his actions). With no political reward in sight, they did their job as the Constitution envisioned it.
It’s quite a remarkable thing. At a time when most Americans have lost all faith in their system of government, one party rose to an occasion, putting country and democracy ahead of political ambitions. Every purely political instinct says, “Don’t take that risk. Play it safe.”
But letting an out-of-control president get away with no checks whatsoever on his misuse of power would have been to surrender altogether, to make clear that our system of government really is a fraud, that voters are right to have no faith in it. That everything we grew up believing about our country and our democracy is a lie. That we are all at the mercy of purely political power struggles. That we are now just some ruthless mash-up of Game of Thrones and House of Cards. We are not West Wing anymore, and if we ever were, that’s long gone, never to return.
Conscience may be the last resort in our political system, but when pushed to that extreme, the Democrats in the House stood up and were counted.
We have such a long way to go from the wall we’re backed against. Trump will, of course, be acquitted by his bootlickers in the Senate. American voters will have to rise to the occasion and prevent the catastrophe of another Trump term, another Republican Senate, and a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court (or worse) for at least another generation. The system of government that saw us through the Depression, World War II, and Civil Rights may yet fail.
Nonetheless, I find it heartening and inspiring that the Democrats in the House found the political courage to prove that it’s still possible for the system to work the way it was intended, providing a necessary check on the corrupting influence of power on the executive branch.
It allowed me to take off my cynical armor and believe again.
If only for a moment.
It would be much easier if we could all continue to think in traditional political patterns — of liberalism and conservatism, as Republicans and Democrats, management and labor, business and consumer or some equally narrow framework. It would be more comfortable to continue to move and vote in platoons, joining whomever of our colleagues are equally enslaved by some current fashion, raging prejudice or popular movement. But today this nation cannot tolerate the luxury of such lazy political habits. Only the strength and progress and peaceful change that come from independent judgment and individual ideas — and even from the unorthodox and the eccentric — can enable us to surpass that ideology that fears free thought more than it fears hydrogen bombs. We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these should be compromises of issues, not of principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves.
John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage