Hannah's Reviews > Profiles in Courage

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy
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Jul 28, 2009

really liked it
Read in November, 2009

A collection of stories of senators who made courageous stands for what they felt was right despite popular opinion, party demands, and even threats on their lives. John Kennedy very eloquently and readably compiled these stories in a multi-faceted manner, not upholding each person as some sort of pinnacle of human heroism, but letting us see the egoism, the stubbornness, and even the sneakiness of each one as we also admire the amazing, independent-minded courses each one took.

This book definitely blows the thought out of the water that today's politics are dirtier or more violent than those in our past. Although it might still be possible that politicians are burned or hanged in effigy today in public, I think it's pretty rare that their constituents drag them out of their carriages (okay, or their cars) and beat them in public. (Andrew Johnson, for example, was almost hung by the people of Lynchburg, Virginia, for not taking the South's side during the secession, and was only released because the members of the crowd--in one of those surreal, semi-rational moments that it seems only large, violent mobs can have--decided that they should let the people of Tennessee, Johnson's home state, have that privilege). At the same time, though, it exposed and explored many of the challenges and trials that modern senators faced (something that Obama talked about in his book--he even referenced Profiles in Courage, which was a neat dovetail since I was reading both at the same time). It's definitely an unenviable position to have your party, your constituents, your supporters, your friends, and even your family members all think that they can tell you exactly what to do, and that you should be obligated to follow their dictates. Of course, taking a course that's to the contrary of the desires of any one of these groups can lead to not only vicious public censure, but being shunned on a widespread scale and losing all hope of a long or prosperous political career. (One of the very striking quotes from the book was Washington saying that he would rather be in a coffin than be in the Presidency during the negotiation of the Jay treaty with the British!) Reading each chapter and learning about the attempts of the public or the parties to convince/shame the senators was definitely a lesson in human meanness, and was especially sad in some cases where the senators were never vindicated for ultimately wise decisions until long after their deaths. Their stories, however, made for very compelling and inspiring reads, especially in that most continued throughout their careers without regretting their stands for what they thought was best for the country.

In more of the realm of political theory, Kennedy also explored in the beginning of the book and through the stories what exactly a senator's calling is, which was very interesting. Should a senator always stick to what his or her constituents would want them to do, regardless of their personal thoughts, because of their obligation to represent the public? At what point (if any) should they diverge from popular opinion or party politics, especially in consideration of how much they owe their position to both? It seems like Kennedy's answer is that ultimately, the politician should strike a balance between serving as the representative of the people and the "caretaker" of the people by following the dictates of their conscience and what they feel is best for the nation, but he is very careful to specify that most times, decisions are often very complex and involve trying to balance out the good and the bad, rather than being able to choose the wholly good or bad as we are often led to think. Another great quote in this regard was that of a British prime minister, who said of a historian who had been criticizing him: I would love to be as certain of anything as [the historian:] is of everything.

There were many absolute gems of hilarity in the book like that one. Anyone who thinks that history is boring is just reading a badly-written book, but, after reading this, I don't think it's possible to put Kennedy's work in that category.
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Reading Progress

07/28/2009 "Standing up to pressure... LIKE A BOSS."
03/12/2016 marked as: read

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