Profiles In Courage

One of the books I have finished reading recently was written by John F. Kennedy when he was the junior U.S. Senator from the state of Massachusetts.  Kennedy was a skillful writer and he had a flair for history as a young man.  He and his younger brother Edward had attended Harvard in the late thirties and were classmates with other young men who would become notable in their own rights, one of which I believe is Ted Sorensen, the historian.  John Kennedy had an ability that would allow him to read well over a thousand words a minute and remember in great detail what he had read.  He was a reader’s reader, if you like, a man who could run through several newspapers or at least their main sections, each morning, any number of magazines and perhaps a couple of books each week.  One might question how well he absorbed the material and what, if anything he learned form it but on the whole one might say that he was a smart man.

This bit of history that JFK, as he would become known by America and the world, wrote is more than a piece of fluff one might expect from someone such as Bill Clinton or worse yet, his wife, Hilary.  The quality of writing is superb and the editing well done.  I am not sure why he chose the subject of individual courage as shown by previous members of the senate but I believe it illustrates much of the character that is missing from the political turmoil in the Congress today.  I suppose one could well argue that Ron Paul was the last of the honest and courageous congressmen of the last twenty or thirty years.  But such men as John Quincy Addams, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, John Norris, and the others profiled in this book of historical accounts are well worth reading about and seeing with keen eyes the difference between ideals and ideology.  For the former drives the spirit of man in honesty while the latter feeds that doctrinaire form of mental dishonesty.

As an example, Kennedy wrote about Robert Taft’s remarks about the Nuremberg War Trials which sparked a fury of bitter words from those who espoused the spirit of justice that seemed more clocked by the angry rage of vengeance.  For Taft, the creation of a world court sitting in trial of those who had committed offences prior to the ex post facto ideas, for the international court had yet to be constituted and no international laws proposed by a world ruling authority and accepted by the individual countries as mandate, this appeared to be a rebuke of the American Constitution and its ideals of legal fairness and individuals rights.  If we do not try a man for past deeds that we have now made illegal then why in heavens name should we expect the world to assume that we, as victors of a war, have the right to try its losers, citizens of another country, for their actions, both individual and collective, for crimes we have now declared illegal?  The outcry was one of a most vicious and personal nature against Taft.  Yet, if those same individuals had shared the fate of the German, and later the Japanese generals, admirals, and government officials, they would have screamed in the shrillest manner against the unjustness of such a trial.  When vengeance masquerades as justice then no one is safe.  But that was the point.

The one running theme trough the actions and thoughts of those senators who were profiled is that a man elected, either through the direct vote of the people or though the vote of a state legislature, is still a representative in a republican form of government.  While the people or the state legislature might give instructions on how such a representative should vote, the senator must follow his conscience and vote according to those ideal of government he has taken an oath to support.  That the senator is not a plebiscite of the majority but the representative of the whole means that he not cast his vote lightly.  A particular state or region’s interest should not be put before that of the country.  Or if an executive action is thought to be an usurpation of that of Congress’s power, then Congress must be defended.  Politically, one may need to go along to get along but one must never cross that line between convenience and virtue.

Today we have few senators and congressmen of the stature of Houston or Taft.  We have almost none that are willing to see their political position destroyed because they are unwilling to compromise their ideals and their integrity.  Some political commentators say we have devolved into political parties that act only in regional interests and political ideology.  Many commentator hark back to the glory days of Congress when great debates raged on the legislative floors and compromises could be reached.  But these commentators have not closely read history and spout as much ignorance as the public demand.  And even ignorance is a profound form of dishonesty for it holds knowledge and research into that knowledge in the highest contempt.  This is, of course, to describe the human condition.  It is what Kennedy has described in his writings and what has been ignored by those who profess to be of learned wisdom and knowledge.

And it would seem far easier to elect men and women who will govern us not according to those constitutional ideas but for the convenience of those who are lazy, who are idle, and who would not be given to thought.  I fear we are progressing far too rapidly from individual freedom to collective enslavement by those who while proclaiming the freedom of the individual are but asserting the need for their own wisdom against the individual.  Only a few know what is best for us and they will bend our will to that form of utopian living.  Utopia is a fascist state.

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