Fifty-six years ago a young senator named John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, which told the stories of eight U.S. senators who displayed that most admirable of human virtues -- courage. As much as the stories of these eight senators are how they handled the trials and tribulations of governing during their time, it's also a book about why courage matters and the consequences of its absence in our national leaders.
As Kennedy wrote, "A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage, which in the past has been brought to public life, is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today." If those of us in the current generation were asked to name the most courageous politicians of our time, whom could we name? Who among those in Washington today are able to forget about their next election, their next sound bite, their next cameo spot, their next fundraiser, and do what's right for America even if that means they lose their jobs?
This country has been through difficult times before. We've had presidents who have taken us through some of our greatest social and political challenges in our history. Thomas Jefferson built a country, Abraham Lincoln saved a country, Lyndon B. Johnson united a country, and Ronald Reagan gave pride to a country. How were they able to meet and conquer such incredible challenges while our leaders today appear to hold the notion that it's better not to compromise even as they watch the country suffer? How have we come to the point where fiscal collapse and chaos is a better outcome than compromise? What lessons can our federal leaders learn from Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Johnson, and Reagan on how to be a person of character in a time which seems to demand compromise?
Jefferson, Lincoln, Johnson, and Reagan all had five personal traits that were the foundations of their courage that lead to their successes.
1) Strongly Religious. Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his journey to the new America, "It was not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness that I understood her greatness.... Religion is indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions." All of these presidents were deeply and faithfully religious men. They understood the history of America was that when we return to our moral and spiritual roots, this creates a shared social ethic that acts as a restraint on the dark side of human nature. They all understood in their own time what historians Will and Ariel Durant meant when their research of two thousand years of Western Civilization found that there is no significant example in history of a society maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
2) Master Negotiators. Having the skills to move an historically significant event forward takes more than slick talk, confrontation, ultimatum, or retreat when one doesn't get his way. In fighting for his vision of America, Jefferson had Hamilton. To save the nation, Lincoln had the North's anger at the South. To bring civil rights to all Americans, Johnson had white prejudice. And to restore America's place as the strongest nation on earth, Reagan had Russia. Yet each of them had the ability of "getting to yes" with their agenda.
None of these presidents caved, none failed, and none stopped because they understood that you can negotiate and compromise without surrendering your principles.
3) Coalition Experts. Each realized that teamwork made their dreams work. Lincoln is known for bringing his enemies in close. Reagan created the "Reagan Democrats." Johnson was a master at reaching across the aisle, and Jefferson applied his intellectual abilities with his mastery of writing. How was Jefferson able to get his Declaration of Independence approved, Johnson his landmark civil rights legislation, Lincoln the passage of the 13th Amendment, and Reagan the disarming of Russia? Each had the incredible capacity to build consensus without compromising their convictions or their vision.
4) Great Communicators. Each of these great presidents had the exceptional ability to convey with clarity their vision, their passion, their cause, and their convictions. None needed a teleprompter, speech writers, pages of notes, or message handlers. Too many politicians today can't speak more than 30 minutes without some help. The public is more connected with the passion and convictions of a leader when they can stand and deliver what's in their heart. Tell us what's in your heart, not your notes. They knew it because they believed it and lived it. True leaders know, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, "It's the content of their character."
5) Visionaries. A true visionary stands, in a sense, between today and tomorrow. They see what we can't see. They know where we need to go and why before we do. Jefferson knew that our new country had to blend the ideas from the age of enlightenment with a new political structure. Lincoln knew that "a divided house cannot stand." Johnson knew that a united country meant equal treatment under the law. Reagan knew that America could once again be "that shining city on the hill." They saw it and then led us.
In the end, each of these great presidents had the courage to summon the content of their characters to lead our country from dark days to a brighter future. Where is that today in our federal leaders? Is it possible to be a person of character in times that pressure for compromise?
Kennedy concluded in Profiles, "With exceptions so rare they are regarded as miracles of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular."
It's time for courage.
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