Over a delicious dinner at friends’ house Friday night, politics and international relations dominated conversation that at times grew loud. One of the more contentious issues was the role of elected officials. Should they legislate according to the campaign promises they made to their constituents, or should they feel free to vote their conscience if they discover a more judicious and patriotic path?
For Gilda and me the choice was clear—we choose leaders to lead, not to stay stagnant when the world around them is evolving. Should Southern representatives have remained anti-civil rights even as the voters who sent them to Washington and their state capitols continued their bigoted beliefs, Gilda asked?
It’s commonplace today for not just Democrats but Republicans as well to co-opt the legacy of John F. Kennedy. But in doing so they must embrace one of his sentinel works. Profiles in Courage is JFK’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of eight U.S. senators who acted on their conscience rather than succumb to political pressure to conform to party politics or the majority of their constituents. They did so at great risk to their careers, in the interest of serving country first.
We find ourselves today in need of such statesmen. Instead of country first, it’s party first for too many of our chosen representatives. Instead of compromise, they are determined to humble their opposition, sowing conflict and animus not seen for generations, perhaps not since the great debates over slavery in the early decades of the 19th century. But even those debates yielded compromises. Today, compromise seems not to be part of the political lexicon.
Perhaps Profiles of Courage should be made mandatory reading for everyone in Washington and our 50 state capitols. Perhaps some who read it and take its lessons to heart will not win re-election because they have put country before their re-election effort. They will earn eternal gratitude. It’s a pipedream, I know, but it’s a worthy pipedream.
Here’s another must read for all—Since Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. You might not have time to read this 1940 book about life during the Great Depression and how our government tried to help its citizens survive it, but surely you have a few minutes to read Joe Nocera’s column on it from Saturday’s NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/opinion/nocera-the-1930s-sure-sound-familiar.html?_r=1&hp
If Nocera is right about the lessons to be gleaned from Since Yesterday, we are in for rougher times given the mood in Washington to cut, cut, cut and not invest in our future.