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Grace Under Pressure
on December 30, 2003
"Profiles in Courage" is a rare book - for a number of reasons.
First, of course, is that the author is nothing short of American royalty and the publication of the book in 1956 had an instantaneous impact on Kennedy's political fortunes. In the late 1950s, JFK was a freshman senator without many notable achievements. "Profiles" immediately set him apart from his Congressional colleagues and established him as something of an intellectual heavyweight in Washington and garnered valuable publicity that ultimately vaulted him to the 1960 Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Second, never before has a work of non-fiction been so immediately embroiled in controversy, both because of questions concerning its composition and the fact that it won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography. The consensus today -- nearly half-a-century after its publication and after intense scrutiny -- is that the book was essentially written by committee. JFK may have provided the inspiration for the work, but close aide and confidant Ted Sorensen did most of the heavy lifting around research and writing. In other words, Kennedy was more the "editor" than the "author." Indeed, Herbert Parmet investigated the "who wrote Profiles?" question in detail in his 1980 book "Jack: The Struggle of John F. Kennedy" and concluded that there was no evidence from reams of hand-written notes and memos that JFK contributed anything substantial to the final version of the book. This after Kennedy threatened to sue ABC for millions after syndicated columnist Drew Pearson alleged that the book was ghostwritten during a 1957 appearance on the Mike Wallace Show, an allegation ABC was forced to retract. To add to the brouhaha, the Pulitzer committee never officially nominated "Profiles" in 1957, yet somehow it came away with the award. Rumors swirled that Joseph Kennedy - and good friend and New York Times columnist Arthur Krock - leaned on the committee to get JFK the award, but those charges have never been, nor likely ever will be, verified.
Finally, the book is rare and important because of its content and theme. Contrary to other reviews, this book is NOT about "doing the right thing." The author(s) stress that each vignette concerns Senators who deliberately took a stand of conscience, which they knew would be unpopular with their constituents and likely cripple their political careers. Their stories have nothing to do with being right in time. Indeed, was Webster "doing the right thing" when he pursued compromise in 1850, including acceptance of the hated Fugitive Slave Law, which so appalled abolitionist Massachusetts? Was Norris right for scuttling Wilson's attempts to arm the American merchant fleet that was being decimated by German U-Boats before the US entry into the First World War? The central issue is the willingness to accept malicious public abuse, the loss of friends, power, prestige and the sacrifice of future aspirations on an issue of moral conscience, regardless how posterity judges that particular position. Kennedy et.al. demonstrate the admirable virtue of political courage through a collection of historical anecdotes of senators - some legends (Webster) and others forgotten (Ross) - across the expanse of US history.
The profiles are all crisp, lively and engaging (kudos to Sorensen!). Each is inspiring in its own way without resorting to mawkishness sentimentality. However, one should be cautioned from fully embracing each story in its entirety. For instance, the author(s) credit Kansas Senator Edmund G. Ross with single-handedly casting the vote that acquitted Andrew Johnson from impeachment charges in 1868, thus saving the executive from gross encroachment by the legislative branch. Some noted historians of the era, such as Eric Foner, note that there were a number of acquittal votes waiting in the wings to ensure that Johnson was not thrown out of office and that Ross ultimately received a number of patronage posts from the president in return for his vote, therefore undermining the notion in "Profiles" that Ross' actions was purely selfless and in the interest of the nation.
In sum, "Profiles in Courage" is a highly readable collection of anecdotes from Senatorial history with a positive, inspiring theme - regardless who wrote the book.