Saturday, February 23, 2008

John McCain and Courage

Years ago, somebody (John F. Kennedy? Ted Sorenson?) wrote a book called Profiles in Courage. For years afterward, nearly every boy and girl with an interest in politics found the volume waiting under the Christmas tree around their twelfth birthday. After Dallas, of course, the book became increasingly poignant as readers reflected on the courageous risk implicitly taken by all those who enter the public arena.

The book itself defined courage not as the post-War generation had come to see it, i.e. the heroic actions of soldiers and sailors, but rather in terms of moral and intellectual steadfastness. Profiles in Courage told the stories of politicians who risked, to borrow the revolutionary cliché, their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to stand up for the principles in which they believed. Some forfeited their careers and others their public respect, but all resisted the siren song of ambition to do what they thought was right and necessary.

The truth was often more complicated than Kennedy (and his coauthor?) suggested, and some of the book's subjects risked more than others, but the overall effect was actually quite inspiring, or at least it was to me during my middle school years. Eventually, I came to realize that Profiles, published in the early 1950s, existed primarily because an ambitious young senator from Massachusetts yearned to be taken seriously on the national stage. If these were the men JFK admired, perhaps one could hope that a Kennedy presidency would be marked by the same standards of selfless integrity.

In the years since our 35th president was lost either to senseless or coordinated violence—I'll take no stand here—I have often reflected on what it means to be courageous. Even before the appearance of Profiles in Courage, Kennedy had shown great bravery in battle, risking his own life to rescue men from the sinking P.T. boat that he commanded during World War II. To be sure, every war produces dozens of stories like this, but each one nevertheless reveals something about the people involved. Not everyone reacts with the same valor during combat and it is fitting to recognize those who do, however many they might be.

Still, the physical courage that the future president showed in the South Pacific was of a different type from the courage displayed by the men whose stories were published under Kennedy's byline. Once he reached the White House, JFK seemed incapable of overcoming his own elephantine ambition and desire for a second term in office. Against his better judgment, and reluctant to be seen as weak, he signed off on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Despite his clear understanding of the moral imperatives of the civil rights movement, Kennedy refused to jeopardize his presidency by throwing himself fully behind the truly courageous men and women who were fighting and dying to bring an end to American apartheid. It was, ironically, Lyndon Johnson, a man of otherwise undetectable integrity, who put his political career on the line to slay Jim Crow once and for all.

As I reflect on the Kennedy years, so full of unrealized promise, it occurs to me that perhaps we carelessly use a single word to mean two very different things. The courage we demand from our warriors is not the same as the courage we seek in our politicians. Physical and moral bravery are very different things, and one is not necessarily associated with the other. They can certainly coexist, of course: George McGovern was a highly decorated Navy flyer in World War II who stubbornly adhered to his principles even though it cost him the presidency and, ultimately, his own senate seat. But there remain plenty of men and women whose battlefield heroism does not extend to their civilian conduct. And there exist at least some physical cowards who will risk everything they have worked for in defense of their moral convictions.

By now, the reader no doubt knows where I am going with this. Michael Kinsley, writing, appropriately enough, for the February 14 edition of Time magazine, pens a valentine to John McCain in which Kinsley refers to the Arizona senator as "honest, courageous, likable and intelligent." Few doubt McCain's intelligence, though his likeability is challenged by at least a couple of legislative colleagues and his honesty must be balanced against his performance as a member of the Keating Five back in his pre-reformist days (indeed, recent revelations suggest that McCain's turnaround on campaign financing and coziness with lobbyists may not have spanned the entire 180 degrees after all).

McCain's courage, however, is uncontested. He did not, assuming the stories are honestly told, simply survive torture and brutality at the hands of his Vietnamese captors. Rather, he endured this horrible mistreatment without breaking, and even refused an offer of early release because he knew it was intended to embarrass his admiral father and thus the United States Navy. I don't know if I could have done what John McCain did, and neither do you. It is remarkable and heroic and he deserves all the credit he has received since.

Nevertheless, the bravery that McCain displayed during those dark times was physical. It was a great deal more impressive even than John F. Kennedy's actions aboard P.T. 109, but it was of a similar variety. Like Kennedy, McCain's handlers want us to believe that the courage their man showed at the Hanoi Hilton will carry over to his maverick presidential administration.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in McCain's political curriculum vitae to suggest that the senator's name belongs alongside the men whose sacrificed careers were so eloquently celebrated by Kennedy/Sorenson in their Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Nearly every difference between McCain's two presidential campaigns speaks to the selection of ambition over principle.

He has, just in the past eight years, flip-flopped on the dangers of the religious right, the legality of abortion, and the wisdom of tax cuts for the rich. His current dance around the question of public financing of his own campaign squares poorly with his ringing message of reform. And amazingly, just last week, McCain even opposed a bill by California's Dianne Feinstein to rule out explicitly the egregious acts of torture, including waterboarding, indulged in by the current administration.

His weasely ways do not make John McCain any worse than most of the other men and women who run for president (though the torture vote is hard to forgive). But the senator's performance in his last-chance bid for the White House makes clear that those who sacrifice valiantly in the physical arena do not necessarily have the stomach to risk their own political ambitions in the service of a higher moral cause. John McCain is, in that sense, no profile in courage.

When his manifest corruptions finally saw the light of day, Duke Cunningham, the loathsome San Diego representative, still had one defender. Duncan Hunter, his ideological and geographical neighbor in Congress said of the Vietnam-era flyer, "He's an American hero and should be given the benefit of the doubt." Hunter, too, wanted us to believe that courage in wartime spoke to a man's integrity and character. He was, as it turned out, embarrassingly wrong.

On his worst day, John McCain is no Duke Cunningham. But neither is he George Norris. What, you've never heard of Norris? Go buy the book.

1 comment:

Tolla said...

Well written article.