Profiles in Courage

Profiles in Courage - John F. Kennedy I first read this book in my teens when I was very much a Kennedy admirer. These days, I'm decidedly ambivalent about him and his presidency, and rather emblematic of that is what I've learned of this Pulitzer Prize winning book since first reading it. By all rights, the byline for this book should read Ted Sorenson, not John F. Kennedy. In his autobiography, Counselor, Sorenson admitted what had been rumored for years--that he largely researched and wrote Kennedy's book for him, writing "the first draft of most chapters." At best, it was a collaboration, but one heavily weighted towards Sorenson. As he explained, "While in Washington, I received from Florida almost daily instructions and requests by letter and telephone – books to send, memoranda to draft, sources to check, materials to assemble, and Dictaphone drafts or revisions of early chapters." So Kennedy did oversee the production, but much of the writing isn't his. Herbert Parmet, a historian who wrote a book on Kennedy, analyzing Profiles in Courage does believe Kennedy largely wrote the opening and closing thematic chapters, and those are I think the parts of the book of enduring historical interest given his presidency. In them Kennedy lays out a philosophy of governance. Elected representatives, Kennedy avers, should not "serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion." I've seen some reviewers lambast that view, claiming that for elected representatives to go against their constituencies, whatever their own views, is undemocratic. Personally, I'd counter that America is not a democracy, not a direct one, and was never designed to be. We're a republic. We elect representatives who are supposed to exercise their best judgement, then defend it to their constituencies who are then free to elect someone else if they don't agree. I'm with Kennedy on that. Kennedy did apparently come up with the idea of the book: stories of eight United States Senators who cast unpopular, potentially career-ending votes. The profiles included some names I think will be familiar to anyone acquainted with American History: John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston and Robert Taft. The other names are much more obscure, although I found the story of Edmund G. Ross, who cast the deciding vote not to impeach President Andrew Johnson, the most memorable in the book. (Although not mentioned is that there is considerable evidence Ross was bribed for his vote. But that wouldn't make for a profile of courage, would it?) All in all, I did find the stories entertaining, but insightful, impressive works of history worthy of an award? No. But I think those opening and closing chapters, "Courage in Politics" and "The Meaning of Courage" well worth reading and thinking about for anyone interested in politics, particularly the American system. That's why in my estimation the book is worth a three-star rating, whatever its genesis and flaws.