One of the most fulfilling elements of membership in the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation Profiles of Courage board is examining the essays on political courage that high school students around the country and, increasingly, around the globe, prepare each year. This year 2,515 students submitted essays, and the finalists we examined were stunningly eloquent and inspiring, making our choice unusually difficult.
Nearly two decades ago, the committee was taken with an essay that took first place but that, in its insight and idealism, has special interest in our own time. So timely, in fact, was the essay that won in the year 2000 that it bears fresh examination as the country gears up for the 2020 presidential election.
Here are some annotated excerpts from that winning essay:
(O)ur future is at risk due to a troubling tendency towards cynicism among voters and elected officials. The successful resolution of every issue before us depends on the fundamental question of public integrity.
Sadly, the cynicism that prevailed in the year 2000, just after the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, has only grown in the years since, as two wars, a devastating economic collapse and increased coarsening of our political rhetoric have rendered American politics toxic and sent public dispirit to new, troubling heights. It is hard to imagine this high school essayist could have contemplated the depths to which American politics has sunk in the years since he sat down to write his essay.
A new attitude has swept American politics. Candidates have discovered that it is easier to be elected by not offending anyone rather than by impressing the voters. Politicians are rushing for the center, careful not to stick their necks out on issues.
We might quibble with whether the drive to political safety is a new phenomenon; for many years Congress was full of milquetoast characters who repeatedly drifted to safe harbors. But the flight from the sort of courage that Sen. Kennedy cited in his book — a politician’s willingness to risk “the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man” — is inescapable in our own time.
(C)ynicism ... is perhaps the greatest threat to the continued success of the American political system. Cynical candidates have developed an ability to outgrow their convictions in order to win power. Cynical citizens have given up on the election process, going to the polls at one of the lowest rates in the democratic world.
This barely needs comment. Public cynicism is rampant in contemporary America. And political figures have not hesitated to tailor their views for political gain. President Donald J. Trump once was an advocate of abortion rights; that view is anathema in the new GOP, and as a candidate he abandoned it. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a 2020 presidential candidate, once had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, a profile that would be fatal in Democratic primaries. Now she has an “F” rating, more congenial to the constituencies she is courting.
Such an atmosphere inevitably distances our society from its leadership and is thus a fundamental threat to the principles of democracy.
For the first time in more than a decade, perhaps longer, some Americans now speak openly about threats to the principles of democracy. These worries first surfaced in the current century with the crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Now they are being voiced more broadly, as the political norms that served as buoys to our democracy are being moved. Republican lawmakers joined Democratic critics of the president in opposing his emergency order for a barrier on the Mexican border, for example. The congressional effort to overturn Trump’s initiative passed both houses, a measure of concern among elected officials. The president vetoed the measure.
Fortunately for the political process, there remain a number of committed individuals who are steadfast enough in their beliefs to run for office to benefit their fellow Americans. Such people are willing to eschew political and personal comfort and convenience because they believe they can make a difference.
Thankfully, this has always been true, and indeed the Profiles in Courage committee has celebrated them since the inception of the award nearly three decades ago. Among the winners are President Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama. One of my favorite selections was Elizabeth Redenbaugh, the only white member of North Carolina’s New Hanover County school board (and the only Republican) to oppose a redistricting plan increasing racial and socioeconomic segregation in the district’s schools.
(E)nergy, candor, conviction and ability to bring people together (can) stand against the current of opportunism, moral compromise and partisanship which runs rampant on the American political scene.
There are precious few political figures today who base their appeals on unity rather than on the divisions that define us and that, when harnessed cynically but skillfully, propel so many to public office. Trump and the nearly two dozen Democrats seeking the White House would do well to read the passage above.
(I am glad to have) an answer to those who say American young people see politics as a cesspool of corruption, beyond redemption. I have heard that no sensible young person today would want to give his or her life to public service. I can personally assure you this is untrue.
So wrote the student who won the Profiles in Courage high school essay contest some 19 years ago. His essay represents the redemption of a passage in Sen. Kennedy’s book that I have consulted so many times that my 35-cent Cardinal Edition paperback opens automatically to that page:
“The stories of past courage ... can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.”
As for the essay winner’s personal assurance that a young person would choose a life of public service, that, too, has been redeemed. The author of that essay — which celebrated its subject “as a reaction to the cynical climate which threatens the effectiveness of the democratic system” — went from St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend, Indiana, to Harvard, became a Rhodes Scholar, served in Afghanistan and was elected mayor of his hometown. Now Pete Buttigieg is running for president. One of his rivals is the subject of his winning entry, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
—David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.