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Profiles in Courage

John F. Kennedy served in the U. S. Congress for fourteen years, from 1947 until 1960.

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, JFK was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1946, and he stayed there until 1952, a total of six years. In 1952, he ran for Senate, won the election and stayed there from 1953 to 1960, a total of eight years.

He was elected President of the United States in November 1960, and in January of 1961, he and his wife Jackie, and their two children, Caroline and John, Jr., moved into the White House, where he served three years as President, until his life ended on November 22, 1963.

Takeaways from his career. JFK never lost an election, although the presidential election in 1960, Kennedy vs. Nixon, was one of the closest ever. Nixon chose to concede rather than call for a recount.

Second, when still young, JFK enjoyed rare political success. He was twenty-nine when first elected to the House, thirty-six when elected to the Senate, and forty-three when elected President.

Today, we remember him as a former President, but he was also a former long-time Congressman.

In 1954, when in the Senate, Kennedy endured a second back surgery, an ailment that carried over from his days playing football at Harvard College. The surgery though failed to diminish his pain.

During his leave of absence from the Senate chamber, he came across a quote from Herbert Agar’s book, The Price of Union, about John Quincy Adams’s courage when he served in Congress.

Political courage had long intrigued Kennedy. During his senior year at Harvard College, he wrote his dissertation about “the failure of British political leaders in the 1930’s to oppose popular resistance to rearming, leaving the country ill-prepared for World War II.”

A publisher published that thesis under the title Why England Slept in 1940, and 80,000 copies sold.

Kennedy showed that quote from Herbert Agar’s book to his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, and asked him to find other examples of Senators, who had displayed unusual political courage at crucial times in their careers. Sorensen came back with eight examples.

In addition to John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Sorensen included Daniel Webster also of Massachusetts, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Sam Houston of Texas, Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, Lucius Lamar of Mississippi, George Norris of Nebraska, and Robert Taft of Ohio.

Although Ted Sorensen wrote the book’s first draft, Kennedy’s name appeared on the book’s title page as author. Profiles in Courage was a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957.

Years later, in 1989, the Kennedy family established the “Profiles in Courage” prize, and the next year, prize officials named their first recipient, Carl Elliott, Sr.

In 1999, John McCain received the award, Gerald Ford in 2001, Ted Kennedy in 2009, George H. W. Bush in 2014, Barack Obama in 2017, Nancy Pelosi in 2019, and Mitt Romney in 2021.

Officials defended that last selection, saying, “Romney was the first Senator to have ever voted to convict a President of his own party. Senator Mitt Romney’s courageous stand was historic.”

In May of 2022, prize officials, for the first time, named five individuals: Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine; Liz Cheney, now a former Congresswoman from Wyoming; Jocelyn Benson, (no relation), Michigan’s Secretary of State; Russell Bowers, Arizona’s House Speaker; and Wandrea’ ArShaye Moss, a former elections department employee in Fulton County, Georgia.

Officials gathered the five under the collective title, “Defending Democracy at Home and Abroad.”

Zelenskyy united Ukraine’s citizens to withstand Putin’s aggressive strike at their homeland.

After the 2020 election, Liz Cheney urged “President Trump to respect the rulings of the courts and his oath of office, and to support the peaceful transfer of power. When Trump rejected the 2020 election’s results, she broke with her party, urged fidelity to the Constitution, and stood her ground.”

“Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s chief elections officer, also did not waver, but defended the will of Michigan voters and assured them that she would protect and defend Michigan’s vote.” As a result of her stand, “she received threats and harassment from then-President Trump and his allies.”

“Russell Bowers endured persistent harassment and intimidation tactics from Trump supporters, and survived an attempt to recall him from Arizona’s legislature.”

Wandrea’ ArShaye Moss “became the target of a vicious smear campaign by then-President Trump and his allies. They falsely accused her of processing fake ballots for Biden in the late-night hours of Election Day. Moss then received so many death threats and racist taunts that she went into hiding.”

For Liz Cheney, the persecution continued after the 2020 election.

“Trump made it his personal mission to defeat her in the August 2022 primary, throwing his weight behind a handpicked Republican opponent, Harriet Hageman.” “Hageman won. Cheney conceded. It was the way democracy worked, once upon a time in America.” She leaves Congress this month.

Conceding an election without drama and theatrics is a prime example of a profile in courage.