Review

Profiles in Courage for Our Time

introduced and edited by Caroline Kennedy

If ever there was a book that fairly exuded bestseller potential even before publication, this would have to be it. The enduring power of the Kennedy family name, the book's obvious descent from John F. Kennedy's PROFILES IN COURAGE of 1956, and the presence of the martyred President's daughter as editor are first-class tickets to the top of the literary charts.

There are, however, obvious differences between the two books. PROFILES IN COURAGE FOR OUR TIME is a collection of essays by 15 different writers, not the work of a single author (I seem to recall hearing that JFK's famous Pulitzer Prize winner was actually ghosted by someone else, but do not know so for sure; for comparative purposes, let his authorship stand). Also, the new book deals with winners of an annual award for political courage set up by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in 1989; thus it lacks the broad historical sweep of the book that inspired it. The list of honorees, as well as the roster of people chosen to write about them, mixes well-known celebrities with relative unknowns.

Most readers will recognize names like Lowell Weicker, Henry Gonzalez, Gerald Ford, and John Lewis, but not too many will immediately place Corkin Cherubini, Nickolas C. Murnion, or Hilda Solis. Among the writers, bigfeet like Michael Beschloss, E. J. Dionne, Anna Quindlen, and Bob Woodward run shoulders with lesser-knowns. In this aspect, a page of brief biographical notes on the essay authors would have been welcome.

The terms of the award specify that recipients must be elected officials --- a laudable rule perhaps in this era when politics has fallen into such deep disrepute, but also one that narrows the field sharply. Are there not many examples of public and praiseworthy courage outside of elected politics? These honorees certainly all deserve the praise they receive here, but a wider focus might have given the book more variety.

Those celebrated tilted valiantly and often at great personal sacrifice against a familiar roster of villains: racism, anti-taxation fanaticism, gun mania, the money-politics axis. Several of them did so at the cost of their political careers --- New Jersey Governor James Florio and Connecticut's Weicker are conspicuous examples. On the whole the book will please the politically liberal reader more than his ultra-conservative neighbor, but that is understandable, considering its auspices. Maybe Bill Buckley, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Armey can get together and assemble a companion volume from the right side of the spectrum --- now wouldn't that stir up reader interest!

The writing in this volume is variable in quality, and it is not always the big-name writers who enthrall the reader. The piece on race-relations activist John Lewis by Teresa Carpenter is especially good, but Marian Wright Edelman, the well-known advocate for children, brings a sermonizing tone to her piece on Cherubini, a Georgia school superintendent who fought to end the automatic tracking of bright black students into vocational courses rather than college-prep subjects. And the piece on Nickolas Murnion, a Montana law enforcement officer who successfully took on the government-hating Freemen, is marred by the overly flowery writing of Ron Suskind. Representative Mike Synar is brought nicely to life by Steven V. Roberts, but Michael Daly's essay on the Irish peacekeepers is pedestrian (he never tells us exactly who won the award). Finally, the several chapters on Southern congressmen who stood up for civil rights legislation are valuable and balanced; they show vividly that compromise is often a necessary and desirable tactic, in itself requiring courage in the face of rampant fanaticism.

One unsolicited suggestion for the Kennedy Library folks who administer the Profiles in Courage Award: Why the need to make an award every year? This might have the effect over time of watering down the award's significance. John F. Kennedy ranged over some 180 years of American history to choose his dozen or so heroes. Remember W. S. Gilbert's witty remark: "Where everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody!"

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on April 30, 2003

Profiles in Courage for Our Time
introduced and edited by Caroline Kennedy

  • Publication Date: April 30, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 362 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 0786886781
  • ISBN-13: 9780786886784