I wonder sometimes whether officials at the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which presents the annual Profile in Courage Award, have ever read “Profiles in Courage.” In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1956 book, then-Senator John Kennedy described eight US senators who upheld an unpopular political position with fortitude, even though it meant defying their party or allies and jeopardizing their careers.
Recipients of the Profile in Courage Award are supposed to epitomize the kind of political fearlessness that JFK extolled. But while some have indeed been exemplars of conscience who put the public good ahead of their own political safety, others definitely have not. At times the award has served as a kind of consolation prize for haughty liberals whose disdainful manner alienated their constituents. At other times it has amounted to little more than a lifetime achievement prize for famous Democrats, such as Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy.
On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the newest Profile in Courage honoree. She received the award, according to the JFK Library, for shepherding passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and for “leading the [Democratic] effort to retake the majority” in the House of Representatives in 2018. Those accomplishments, impressive as they were, had nothing to do with political bravery. They attest to Pelosi’s legislative and electoral acumen, not her moral grit. The Affordable Care Act was the top priority of a Democratic president and the Democrats who controlled Congress; it took no heroism to push it into law. As for quarterbacking her party’s efforts to win more House seats — that’s what party leaders are expected to do. No courage required.
Yet when Pelosi found herself in a situation where political courage was required, she showed none.
Just a few months ago, the House was roiled by the anti-Semitism of freshman Representative Ilhan Omar. In public comments, the Minnesota Democrat perpetuated the ugly stereotypes that Jewish money dominates American policymaking and that pro-Israel Jews in Congress are motivated by “allegiance to a foreign country.” That outraged respected party veterans, who introduced a resolution condemning such anti-Jewish bigotry. But the measure triggered an uproar from far-left Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus, who rallied around Omar and demanded that the resolution be watered down into a bland condemnation of all forms of hatred.
That was when the speaker of the House could have shown real mettle and insisted that Democrats repudiate the anti-Semitism in their ranks. Instead, she caved to the extremists. The strong resolution was spiked, and Pelosi lamely excused Omar on the grounds that she hadn’t understood the “full weight” of her slurs.
But if Pelosi doesn’t fit the description of a profile in courage, there are others who do.
When Senator Susan Collins of Maine decided last October to support Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, she knew well that “her vote will haunt her politically for the remainder of her career,” as The New York Times put it. The pressure on Collins to oppose Kavanaugh was noisy, public, and abusive. A crowdfunding campaign raised millions of dollars for a future campaign to unseat Collins if she didn’t vote no. Her office was inundated with profane and threatening messages.
Undeterred, Collins cast the crucial vote for Kavanaugh, carefully explaining her reasons in a speech on the Senate floor.
Now that’s what JFK would have called a profile in courage.
Perhaps he would have said the same about Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton, the congressional backbencher who launched an intraparty campaign to stop the powerful Pelosi from being restored as speaker after Democrats recaptured the House majority in November. Or about Representative Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican who is bucking virtually the entire GOP with his call for President Trump’s impeachment. Or about Mark Janus, the Illinois state worker who challenged one of the most powerful public-sector unions in the country, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court for the right not to have to support a labor union as a condition of working in public service.
Almost by definition, genuine profiles in courage are uncommon. But they aren’t impossible to find. In his classic book, JFK made a point of focusing on exemplars of backbone and integrity, not on the political tribe they belonged to. Kennedy was a loyal Democrat, but that wasn’t the point of “Profiles in Courage.” It shouldn’t be the point of the Profile in Courage Award, either.