Sixty-six years ago this week, a young U.S. senator from Massachusetts published a book titled “Profiles in Courage.” It told the stories of eight senators, stretching from John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts in the early 1800s to Robert A. Taft of Ohio in the 1940s, each of whom stood against partisanship and the popular views of their times in defense of their principles and what they understood to be the good of the nation.
John F. Kennedy’s book was a major best-seller and won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography. It also was criticized for what some thought were oversimplifications of history. (Did Kansas Sen. Edmund G. Ross really do the nation such a great favor by voting to acquit President Andrew Johnson in his 1868 impeachment trial?) And it was dogged by allegations that Kennedy didn’t really write it. (The real credit, it was said, belonged to longtime Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson.)
Still. The stories of ambitious and accomplished politicians who refused to be dragged into hyper-partisanship, who put the long-term interests of the nation before the trendy demands of a political moment, often endangering their own political futures in the process, deserved to be told then. And they deserve to be told now.
If we can find any.
Recalling, as Kennedy did, the years leading up to the Civil War may help us see that the political and social divisions of our times are not the worst our nation has endured. At least, not yet.
The challenges before us, from climate change to an ongoing pandemic to threats of war, will not be solved by further dividing America into rival political, social and racial tribes, by spreading lies, by attacking those who do seek common ground as turncoats, trying to read them out of their political parties for being insufficiently devoted to their cause and their dear leaders.
From Congress to local school boards, loud and sometimes violent protests, often sparked by misinformation spread through the sewers of the internet, threaten to push those with more moderate and inclusive views and goals to shy away from participating in our democracy at any level.
Americans, Utahns, of good will cannot leave the field to those who prefer the battle to the resolution, who talk of imprisonment or death for those who see the world differently, who use the rhetoric of combat and violence rather than invoke the better angels of our nature.
One particularly sad example is Rep. Burgess Owens, a Republican from Utah’s 4th Congressional District, who recently helped to whip up a nasty assemblage of far-right activists by singing the praises of “real men” who know how to use firearms and refers to the blessed availability of COVID vaccinations for young people as “child abuse.”
On the other hand, other Republicans from our part of the country give us hope that we yet have leaders who want to build and defend rather than divide and destroy.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming has bravely stood against the decline of her Republican Party into the Donald Trump cult of personality. She was one of the few Republican House members to vote to impeach him for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and is an outspoken advocate for finding the truth on the House Special Committee looking into that horrible moment.
Her reward has been to see herself kicked out of party leadership in the House, disowned by the Wyoming Republican Party and draw a Trump-endorsed challenger for this year’s election.
And Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has also shown considerable backbone by voting to convict Trump not once, but twice. He opposes many of President Joe Biden’s more expensive initiatives and has different ideas about how to help struggling families. But Romney shows no patience for the elements of his party that actively refuse to even seek common ground with Democrats in cobbling together such accomplishments as the recent infrastructure package that will go a long way toward making up decades of neglect.
Romney, too, has been attacked by members of his own party for the sin of being principled and independent rather than becoming yet another minion of Trump’s xenophobic, authoritarian movement.
He was also, fittingly, the winner of the 2021 Profiles in Courage Award bestowed by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Romney and Cheney provide needed examples of political leaders who don’t surrender their principles for temporary popularity. So do the memories of Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. Harry Reid, both who whom died in the past few weeks, both of whom were remembered for a kind of political skill and leadership that sought to preserve American democracy, to move it forward, to build relationships across ideological divides for the good of the nation.
America faces a threat to its unity and its democracy that is as dangerous as any since the run-up to the Civil War. To avoid falling into another such abyss, as the elections of 2022 and 2024 approach, we need not only political leaders but also activists, journalists, experts, public servants and just plain citizens who refuse to engage in the hatred of rival tribes, who decry the use and threat of violence, who stand for our democracy.
If enough of us do so, it won’t take a lot of courage to counter these threats. Just good faith and real patriotism.