WORTH READING: Political Courage and Integrity – Profiles in Courage

In 1956, Profiles in Courage, written by John F. Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts. was published. The book won the Pulitzer prize for biography. There is substantial controversy as to whether Senator Kennedy, who was elected President in 1960, was the true and sole author of the book and the circumstances surrounding the winning of the Pulitzer Prize. I address briefly those issues below but my main focus is to call your attention to the important, sometimes profound, observations in the book, regardless of who wrote it and whether or not it deserved the Pulitzer Prize.

The book chronicles particular acts of political courage by eight United States Senators who embodied the nature of political courage and the risks entailed in crossing party lines and ignoring public opinion to do what they felt was right as an expression of personal conviction is expressed in the opening quotation taken from a eulogy of an English politician by Edmund Burke, himself a politician as well as a philosopher:

“He well knows what snares are spread about his path, from personal animosity … and possibly from popular delusion. But he has put to hazard his ease, his security, his interest, his power, even his … popularity. … He is traduced and abused for his supposed motives. He will remember that obloquy is a necessary ingredient in the composition of all true glory: he will remember … that calumny and abuse are essential parts of triumph. … He may live long, he may do much. But here is the summit. He never can exceed what he does this day.” —Edmund Burke’s eulogy of Charles James Fox for his attack upon the tyranny of the East Indian Company. House of Commons, 1 December 1783

Here are a few insights on courage from Profiles in Courage:

“The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people – faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment – faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.”

“For in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘hold office’; everyone of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.”

“In whatever area in life one may meet the challenges of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows 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 can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.

See additional observations on political moral courage. 

The following passage about the authorship controversy connected with the book is excepted from Wikipedia:

The impetus for the book was a passage from Herbert Agar’s book The Price of Union about an act of courage by John Quincy Adams. It gave Kennedy the idea of writing about senatorial courage. He showed the passage to Sorensen and asked him to see if he could find some more examples. This Sorensen did, and eventually they had enough not just for an article, as Kennedy had originally envisaged, but a book. With help from research assistants and the Library of Congress, Kennedy wrote the book while bedridden during 1954 and 1955, recovering from back surgery.Although the book was not nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Kennedy’s father Joseph asked columnist Arthur Krock, his political adviser and a longtime member of the prize board, to persuade others to vote for it. Profiles in Courage won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957.

In 1957  journalist Drew Pearson declared on the The Mike Wallace Interview that “John F. Kennedy is the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him.” Wallace replied “You know for a fact, Drew, that the book Profiles in Courage was written for Senator Kennedy … by someone else?” Pearson responded that he did.” Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy and hired lawyers to threaten to sue for libel. The lawyers demanded a full retraction and apology. Mike Wallace and Drew Pearson insisted that the story was true and refused to back off. Nevertheless, ABC made the retraction and apology, which made Wallace furious. Years later historian Herbert Parmet analyzed the text of Profiles in Courage and wrote in his book The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980) that although Kennedy did oversee the production and provided for the direction and message of the book, it was clearly Sorensen who provided most of the work that went into the end product. The thematic essays that comprise the first and last chapters “may be viewed largely as [Kennedy’s] own work”, however.

In 2008, Ted Sorensen published his autobiography, Counselor, in which he detailed the role he played in preparation of the manuscript. how he collaborated with Kennedy on the book: “While in Washington, I received from Florida almost daily instructions and requests by letter and telephone – books to send, memoranda to draft, sources to check, materials to assemble, and Dictaphone drafts or revisions of early chapters.” Sorensen said, Kennedy “worked particularly hard and long on the first and last chapters, setting the tone and philosophy of the book” and that “I did a first draft of most chapters” and “helped choose the words of many of its sentences”.  JFK “publicly acknowledged in his introduction to the book my extensive role in its composition” Sorensen claimed that in May 1957, Kennedy “unexpectedly and generously offered, and I happily accepted, a sum to be spread over several years, that I regarded as more than fair” for his work on the book.



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