Opinion

Very much up for grabs: this year’s profile in courage

Washington may not offer much in the way of inspiration, but look a little harder

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott occasionally calls out examples of racism in his own party, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Identifying the politician offering that idealistic advice is not so hard — President John F. Kennedy at his Jan. 20, 1961, inauguration. But that’s not all the 35th president had to say about the promise and challenges of America.

Climate change? “The supreme reality of our time is the vulnerability of our planet.” Income inequality? “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, based in Boston, planned to regularly tweet out Kennedy’s quotes, though if you now try to seek a daily dose of inspiration, you will see a note on its page: “We’re sorry, but we will not be posting updates to our social media channels during the government shutdown. Also, all National Archives facilities are closed and activities are canceled until further notice.”

Exactly.

Any president, or human being for that matter, is a combination of strengths and flaws. Kennedy’s belief in the value of public service — from volunteering to voting to running for elective office — stands out as something to be celebrated, especially though not exclusively in this time of political acrimony and gridlock.

Besides its primary mission to collect and make available for research the documents and memorabilia of the president, his family and contemporaries, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation sees itself, in the words of Jacqueline Kennedy, as “a vital center of education and exchange and thought” and “a living center of study of the times in which he lived, which will inspire the ideals of democracy and freedom in young people all over the world.”

Its programs include a Profile in Courage essay contest, asking high school students to describe and analyze an act of political courage by a U.S. elected official who served during or after 1917, the year Kennedy was born. It also supports projects that promote civic education for young people in a country where, according to surveys, more people can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, said Steven M. Rothstein, executive director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

Also watch: It’s official — longest shutdown ever

The library foundation casts a nonpartisan gaze on the qualities Kennedy believed in and those who exemplify them — the goal of the Profile in Courage award, named for Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book detailing the choices made by senators despite knowing they could pay a political price.

“We want to celebrate the quality of political courage that President Kennedy admired,” said Rothstein, to recognize those who “stick to their convictions even when it may be difficult.”

Doubt has set in among Americans since Kennedy’s time, Rothstein said, citing Pew survey results showing that while in 1962, 75 percent trusted government, the figure fell to 17 percent a year ago. The Profile in Courage, created in 1989, recognizes officials on the local, state and federal level, from every party. “We want to restore trust, and one of the ways is to have elected officials show the courage and stand up for what they believe, whether they’re on one side of the aisle or the other.”

In 2001, former President Gerald Ford, a Republican, won for pardoning former President Richard Nixon, knowing it probably would cost him politically. Ford wrote in his autobiography that he “wasn’t motivated primarily by sympathy for [Nixon’s] plight or by concern over the state of his health. It was the state of the country’s health at home and around the world that worried me.”

As Rothstein said, “You may or may not agree with the particular decision, but you recognize the courage” it took to make it.

Last year’s winner, former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, was recognized for the plan and execution, fiercely opposed by many, to remove the city’s Confederate monuments, and to passionately explain the history and pain behind their construction.

Think you know who deserves this year’s honor? Anyone can nominate someone who may fit the bill by Feb. 1.

Washington may not be the first city that comes to mind when I think courage, not when it takes musings on “white supremacy” to finally make his Republican colleagues step away from Rep. Steve King of Iowa. He has been spouting similar racist insults and outrages through the years without losing support in his party. And words and actions from the party’s leader, Donald Trump, have matched King’s since the days before Trump was president, when he was sued for discriminating against African-Americans in the New York apartment buildings he and his father owned. Condemning him is a step too far for Republicans fearful of blowback from the base.

Yet I am encouraged that Tim Scott, the lone African-American Republican in the Senate, will occasionally call out examples of racism in his party, recently in a Washington Post opinion column, or vote against judicial nominees with questionable records on racial and social justice, knowing that many of his South Carolina constituents may not approve.

Former Democratic North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp almost certainly saw her tough re-election race slip out of reach with her “no” vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Based, she said, on questions about his “temperament, honesty and impartiality” during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she cast it.

It’s fashionable to condemn government as the problem. But the current shutdown is teaching many Americans just how much we depend on government workers, many of whom choose to serve because they want to help their fellow citizens.

As lofty as Kennedy’s inaugural appeal to our better angels may have been, a different Kennedy quote resonates especially deeply in today’s political environment: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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