Profiles in Pragmatism

Culture Watch

Mr. Renehan is the author of a number of books, among them The Kennedys at War, 1937-1945, recently published by Doubleday. His home on the web is

With Caroline Kennedy's new Profiles in Courage for Our Time commanding much attention, it will perhaps prove worthwhile to take a moment, revisit her father's book, and consider how the assumptions and subtle deceits from the first volume of Profiles have influenced what we have before us now.

Of course, as documented long ago by Herbert Parmet, John Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning tome came from the hands of several literary elves, among them Theodore Sorenson. To this charge the loyal Sorenson replies vaguely, but perhaps legitimately, that the true author of a work is he or she who"stands behind" the words.

Sorenson has a point. Undoubtedly, John Kennedy was the source for the key notions expressed in Profiles. At the very least, he approved the exemplars of political courage presented. And he did so with a concrete ambition in mind: to make his readers (a.k.a., voters) believe that he himself revered and sought to reflect the altruistic bravery glamorized in his book.

This is a courage that involves the abandonment of cynicism. This is a courage that empowers one to swim valiantly against the tide of popular- and party-opinion, toward the greater national good, regardless of personal consequences. And this is courage that, when it appears in American political life, almost always does so as a con: an exercise in political sleight of hand.

No one understood this better than John Kennedy. A devoted student of both history and politics, Kennedy surely realized that many of the acts narrated in Profiles were simply not feats of courage. They were instead experiments in opportunism.

Let's go with just two examples.

Profiles opens by depicting John Quincy Adams who--as a young, first-term-senator from Massachusetts--renounced his father's Federalist party and supported the Jefferson Embargo of 1807. Kennedy paints this defining moment in Adams’s early career as a signal example of right overriding pragmatism. But in fact, Adams's action was not a principled, semi-suicidal defection from a sturdy political power-base. It was instead the shrewd abandonment of a diminished party with which the country at large had already lost sympathy--a party from which an ambitious young man, hurrying toward his future, was wise to flee.

Later in his book, Kennedy notices Senator Daniel Webster’s involvement with the Fugitive Slave Law: a much-debated Federal statute that helped preserve the Union as part of Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850.

According to Profiles, when Webster of Massachusetts announced his support for the Fugitive Slave measure, he courted the hatred of a Bay-State electorate energized by radical abolitionist sentiment. Not so. Radical abolitionists were in fact a minority in Massachusetts. With his endorsement of the Compromise, Webster pragmatically bowed to the wishes of a large majority within his home state. Webster also, at the same time, secured the indebtedness of a powerful friend, Millard Fillmore, who shortly rewarded him with a Cabinet appointment.

In the real world, those in political life who brazenly and unwisely flout popular opinion wind up as mere footnotes to history. They are recalled, if at all, as oddities: freaks of political nature.

This truth was not lost on John Kennedy, who chose to have his own mention in history books be something larger than a footnote. In literature as in life, Kennedy pretended to admire and emulate the selfless political bravery that brought some to grief. But what he actually respected and aspired-to was the calculated pragmatism and knack for self-preservation with which Adams and Webster navigated the waters of public life.

In Caroline Kennedy's new Profiles in Courage for Our Time, the charade of the first volume continues. Contributed chapters authored by the likes of Michael Beschloss and Anna Quindlen depict various winners of the Kennedy Foundation's"Profiles in Courage" award, and chronicle risk-taking that never, upon analysis, seems quite real. Once again, let's go with just two examples.

Was James Florio truly putting himself out on a limb when, as Governor, he imposed an assault weapons ban in New Jersey? The people of the state widely approved Florio's action. They subsequently voted him out off office not on the score of gun control, but rather on the score of taxes he raised after promising he wouldn't.

Then we have Russ Feingold and John McCain. Did these two senators put their careers on the line when they launched their bipartisan partnership in favor of campaign finance reform? As polling data indicates, John and Joan Q. Public have always been fans of the McCain/Feingold measure. And today both Feingold and McCain (especially McCain) enjoy tremendous popularity on the street largely because of what has become their trademark issue.

It is time to rename both Caroline's book and her father's. The phrase should not be Profiles in Courage, but rather Profiles in Pragmatism.

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Clayton E. Cramer - 6/4/2002

It was not a machine gun ban that Florio passed. Machine guns have been subject to very serious federal regulation since 1934, and I would be surprised if New Jersey didn't have its own very severe regulation of machine guns for decades. The "assault weapon" ban applied to guns that fire one shot for each pull of the trigger--the sort of guns that are commonly owned by lots of Americans, and have been, for decades.

It didn't take any courage for Florio to sign a law that enjoyed widespread support because of intentional media deception on this issue. It would have taken real courage for Florio to point out that there was no evidence that such weapons were being widely misused. See for my examination of the Department of Justice's statistical analysis of the federal assault weapons ban, Jeffrey A. Roth and Christopher S. Koper, "Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994-96," NCJ 173405, (Washington: National Institute of Justice, 1999). They concluded that it made no statistically meaningful difference in murder rates, the number of victims per mass murder, the number of wounds per gunshot victim, or the number of gun murders of police officers. Wny? In the words of the researchers the Clinton Administration paid to study this issue, "the banned weapons and magazines were rarely used to commit murders in this country" before the 1994 ban.

Edward Furey - 5/28/2002

Perhaps it wasn't quite courage, but the fact remains that McCain and Fiengold were bucking their parties -- especially McCain -- in pushing their campaign finance reform. And that takes a certain amount of nerve. They made important enemies at worst, and irritated friends at best. All of whom could coalesce to injure their other projects in the future.

Florio and the legislators who backed him may have been confident that the machine gun ban would have wide public support, but it should also be recalled that that the general public has many interests and the gun lobby one. There is no shortage of people in the Congress who are quietly sympathetic with the Florio position, but take no action or even vote against their private beliefs and those of most of their constituents to avoid antagonizing a powerful lobby, with its money and manpower.

Also, given the murders or her father and uncle by gunslingers, Caroline Kennedy may be more appreciative of this kind of courage than people who have experienced only the thrill of fear from watching "Six O'Clock News" reports of mayhem.

Edward Furey