In 1956, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for writing “Profiles in Courage,” a volume of short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight U.S. senators.
The book profiles senators who defied opinions of their party and constituents to do what they felt was right, suffering severe criticism and losses in popularity as a result.
In President Trump’s era, the state of our national politics has escalated from deeply polarized into open political tribal warfare. We live in the “Age of Rage.” Very few in today’s Senate ever risk being anything other than fierce and loyal partisans for their own political party.
The late GOP Sen. John McCain has been the most notable exception. In addition to demonstrating great courage in enduring 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain stood out for his independence and bipartisanship in a Senate career that spanned over 31 years.
McCain’s last “Profile in Courage” moment came in the early morning hours of July 28, 2017 when he joined two other Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) in voting against the GOP’s “skinny repeal” bill — a measure that would have permanently repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate but offered nothing to replace it.
For a senator who ran for president as a “maverick” candidate not bound by party-line votes or political pressure, it seemed fitting. His decisive iconic thumbs-down vote had real consequence, leaving the Affordable Care Act in place as his last major legislative impact.
Collins bucked her GOP Senate leadership on both repeal of Obamacare and on calling additional witnesses in the impeachment proceeding against President Trump. But Collins’ greatest act of political courage was in the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Collins was the focus of a brutal lobbying campaign that labeled her a “rape apologist.” Passions were so inflamed that she required a security escort to her office, even to her home in Maine.
Her profile in courage occurred Oct. 6 when she delivered a 44-minute address to colleagues — a speech that took the wind out of Democrats’ opposition and sealed Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Collins was the most consequential “star” of the debate on Kavanaugh’s fate.
A Wall Street Journal editorial proclaimed it “Lamar Alexander’s Finest Hour,” lauding the retiring longtime Tennessee senator for his leadership and vote against additional witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Trump. Alexander’s rofile in courage was contained in a Jan. 30 statement.
“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation,” Alexander wrote. “But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot for actions that are inappropriate.” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told reporters “ Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.”
GOP Sen. Mitt Romney will now be either derided as a traitor or hailed as a hero, but he voted his conscience in breaking ranks to convict Trump on the “abuse of power” impeachment article. In doing so, he was one man alone in the Senate not to vote with his party and he became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party.
Romney’s decision on Feb. 5 is his profile in courage. In these hyperpartisan times, Romney knows he will face vicious attacks from Trump, by fellow Republican lawmakers, conservative media, and many of his constituents.
The profiles in courage exhibited by McCain, Collins, Alexander and Romney recall a chorus line from an old hymn, “Do what is right; let the consequences follow.” It’s easy to sing the words — much harder to live them out.