In 1990, former Senator Lowell Weicker avoided a daunting Republican primary showdown with then-Representative John Rowland by running as an independent candidate for Connecticut governor. Upon winning a narrow plurality over Rowland in the general election, Weicker quickly reneged on his explicit campaign promise to oppose a state tax on earned income.
Roughly a year later, shortly after calling Senator Ted Kennedy one of the “best senators I have ever known” in a New York Times Magazine feature, Governor Weicker was presented with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. The presenter was none other than Ted Kennedy.
Last year, far from skirting a primary showdown, Senator Joe Lieberman willingly subjected himself to the highly personalized vitriol and barely disguised anti-Semitism of his Democratic challenger’s most vocal web-based supporters. Having attempted in vain to stem the tide of a partisan purge, Lieberman then followed in Weicker’s footsteps by running and winning as an independent.
In so doing, Lieberman took on two Greenwich multimillionaires simultaneously: his immediate opponent Ned Lamont, a scion of the J.P. Morgan fortune, as well as Weicker, a scion of the Squibb pharmaceutical empire, who had been ousted from the Senate by Lieberman in 1988 and now endorsed Lamont’s effort to oust his former rival.
In presenting the 1992 award to Weicker, Senator Kennedy had noted that “too often, elected officials are captives of public opinion polls, bending to the contemporary winds and trends, unwilling to act on principle, reluctant to pursue unpopular courses of action or offend powerful and well-financed special interest groups.” In contrast, Kennedy remarked, the Profile in Courage Award honors “elected officials who act in accord with their conscience, even at risk to their careers, by pursuing a larger vision of the national, state or local interest, in opposition to the prevailing views of their constituents.”
It is difficult to imagine an elected official whose course of action over the past year meets the criteria for this award more clearly than that of Lieberman. He willingly offended moneyed special interest groups such as MoveOn.org by refusing to call for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. He steadfastly pursued a foreign policy that he perceived to be in the greater national interest, despite the overwhelming displeasure of his constituency. Moreover, his words and conduct closely mirrored that of the protagonists in the classic book for which the prize is named.
Like Senator (and later President) John Quincy Adams — who insisted that “the critical issues of war and peace could not be decided on the basis of ‘geographical position’ [or] ‘party bias'” — Lieberman defied New England voters by supporting an unpopular president from the rival party in foreign affairs. Like Senator Albert Beveridge — who maintained that “a party can live only by growing [for] intolerance of ideas brings its death” — Lieberman refused to let one issue be the litmus test of his partisan loyalty.
Last year, the Profile in Courage Award Committee conferred the prize upon Rep. John Murtha, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war and the Bush Administration. In his introductory remarks, Senator Kennedy lauded Murtha for “telling the war like it is,” despite the Administration’s “pathological aversion to thoughtful criticism.”
Yet in Profiles in Courage, President Kennedy wrote that he had selected his protagonists not because he agreed that they were right in taking the stands they did, but because of the political courage they displayed in taking those stands at all. It is “on matters of conscience which challenge party and regional loyalties,” JFK asserted, “that the test of courage is presented.” It takes a special brand of political courage for the senator to “defy the angry power of the very constituents who control his future.”
As we reflect upon what would have been President Kennedy’s ninetieth birthday, and the annual presentation of the Profile in Courage Awards scheduled to coincide with that date, it is certainly no criticism of this year’s and past years’ worthy recipients to note that Lieberman’s award remains conspicuously missing.
As JFK both profoundly understood and famously celebrated, true political courage often means telling those who control your future what they don’t necessarily want to hear. Whether you agree with Lieberman or not, for a Democratic senator from Connecticut in 2007 to say, “I have tremendous admiration for the President, because I believe he understands the challenge of our time,” constitutes political courage in precisely the way JFK defined it.
Ultimately, if Lieberman’s unforgivable sin in the eyes of his detractors is that, unlike many of the figures in Profiles in Courage, he emerged victorious and was not immediately banished to political oblivion, JFK has already provided a rejoinder: “The true democracy puts its faith in the people — faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment — faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.”